Traumatic experiences can leave a fundamental and distressing impact on our lives. For many people, it can be difficult to make sense of what has happened in the aftermath of trauma and how we feel about ourselves, about others and about the world around us. For some, the impact of the trauma is so devastating that it may leave them unable to cope or move forward. So why is it that others are able not only to cope with the trauma but also to experience personal growth and positive change? The answer may be found in a concept known as Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG).
Post-traumatic growth is positive psychological change or development that is experienced after trauma, crisis or the ongoing struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. Whereas resilience refers to the notion of “bouncing back” to a prior equilibrium, post-traumatic growth can be viewed as the idea of “bouncing forward” in response to adversity (Walsh, 2002). PTG experiences are not just about learning how to live with the effects of trauma or bouncing back from trauma but about undergoing personal growth and individual development as a direct result of the trauma (Tedeschi, Park, & Calhoun, 1998).
There are three main areas of PTG growth that have been identified. These include changes in perception of self, changes in relationships with others and changes in philosophy of life (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 1999). Many individuals who come face-to-face with trauma can ultimately find meaning in their suffering and as a result, experience both PTG and increased life satisfaction (Calhoun, Cann, & Tedeschi, 2010).
Although the question as to why some people are able to experience PTG in the aftermath of a trauma and others do not remains largely unexplained, the existing literature on stress and trauma suggests that certain personality characteristics, such as optimism or openness to new experiences, may factor into the relationship between traumatic experience and post-traumatic growth (O’Leary, Alday, & Ickoviks, 1998; Tennen & Affleck, 1998). Other factors that may foster PTG include a strong social support system, adaptive coping strategies, and a spiritual belief system.
But even if you’re not naturally optimistic or deeply religious, exploring the possible benefits of a particularly challenging event can be a stated goal of therapy. It is human nature to attempt to make sense out of the events in our lives, which is why we tend to assign meaning or interpretation to something like an illness or a divorce. Surviving a cancer diagnosis, for example, may serve to prompt many individuals to reevaluate life goals or shift priorities.
It’s important to realize that experiencing post-traumatic growth doesn’t necessarily preclude experiencing stress as well. In fact, suffering and growth may occur simultaneously. What’s important is being able to find meaning in the suffering. Don’t hesitate to seek out therapy if you’d like to explore what meaning, if any, can be made out of a seemingly senseless and devastating life event. A skilled therapist can help you make sense of the trauma, which is what will ultimately help you overcome your circumstances, rise above adversity and thrive.
By Jennifer Moizel, M.A., Psychological Intern
Supervised by Bruce Brodie, Ph.D. (PSY 6574)
Calhoun, L.G., Cann, A., Tedeschi, R.G., & McMillan, J. (2000). A correlational test of the relationship between posttraumatic growth, religion, and cognitive processing. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 13, 521–527
Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (1999). Facilitating posttraumatic growth: A clinician’s guide. London: Erlbaum.
O’Leary, V. E., Alday, C. S., & Ickovics, J. R. (1998). Models of life change and posttraumatic growth. In R. G. Tedeschi, C. L. Park, & L. G. Calhoun (Eds.), Posttraumatic growth: Positive changes in the aftermath of crisis (pp. 127-151). London: Erlbaum.
Tedeschi, R. G., Park, C., & Calhoun, L. G. (1998). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual issues. In R. G. Tedeschi, C. L. Park, & L. G. Calhoun (Eds.), Posttraumatic growth: Positive changes in the aftermath of crisis (pp. 1-23). London: Erlbaum.
Tennen, H., & Affleck, G. (1998). Personality and transformation in the face of adversity. In R. G. Tedeschi, C. L. Park, & L. G. Calhoun (Eds.), Posttraumatic growth: Positive changes in the aftermath of crisis (pp. 65-98). London: Erlbaum.
Walsh, F. (2002). Bouncing forward: Resilience in the aftermath of September 11. Family Processes, 41, 34– 36.