What is Post-traumatic Growth?
The Journey from Adversity to Growth
To go through trauma is one of life’s most difficult experiences, but while traumatic events like an accident or a bereavement can destroy life as we know it, there can be an unexpected positive that emerges from the most negative of experiences. For it turns out that there is truth in the old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The most testing of events can act as a springboard to a new sense of self and open the gates to a deeper form of well-being. This is known as post-traumatic growth (PTG). It may not be as familiar as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but it is just as likely to come out of trauma.
Post-traumatic stress is usually thought of as being caused by events outside of normal human experience – war, terrorism or natural disasters – but the truth is that it can be the result of any adversity that overwhelms your ability to cope. Divorce, a diagnosis of illness, bullying or a business failure can all trigger it. It may be a source of comfort to know that while you’re going through the eye of the storm something more positive may also be happening. Positive psychological changes emerge like phoenix from the ashes in 3 major areas of life.
- change in your sense of self
- change in relationships
- change in philosophy of life.
But it doesn’t stop there. PTG is not only about change, people talk about having gained something from the adversity. The benefits may take their time to develop but are no less substantial for it. “I no longer see what life took from me – I see what it gave me” is how one survivor of a double childhood bereavement put it decades later. There are 5 dimensions to PTG and it’s estimated that around 90% of trauma survivors will experience one of these.
Greater personal strength: People who have come through major stressful events often talk about feeling more alive and having a deeper understanding of themselves. They know who they really are and what they want in life. They have grown through the experience – older, wiser and stronger.
Closer relationships: Trauma is just as much a test of our relationships as it is of ourselves. You discover who your true friends are. There is a greater sense of closeness and authenticity in the relationships that survive. You may experience the kindness of strangers that is the very hallmark of humanity.
New appreciation of life: Adversity can throw things up in the air and lead you to question life, to alter your worldview and find a fresh appreciation for life. This is particularly the case for anyone who’s faced serious illness.
New priorities and possibilities: Trauma is a watershed with a sense of life ‘before’ and ‘after’ the trauma. As your life changes so do your priorities. You may want to abandon your old life and feel motivated to do something that’s meaningful. Trauma brings endings but with those come new beginnings.
Spiritual development: Going through trauma can trigger spiritual growth as people emerge from their ‘long, dark night of the soul’ and connect with the religion of their youth or are drawn to a new one. This spirituality can also take a secular form – a faith in the power of love or a deeper connection to nature.
Assimilation or accommodation – the metaphor of a broken vase
PTG is depedent on whether you are able to accommodate the trauma into your mental landscape. The metaphor of a broken vase is helpful to understanding how this works. When you have a life-shattering experience there are two possible responses. Either try and glue the pieces back together – life will look the same but it will be more fragile. This is known as assimilation – trying to carry on as before. Or you can pick up the pieces and make something new and different like a beautiful mosaic. Life looks different but is more robust. This is accommodation.
Trying to make sense of the trauma, a constructive form of rumination, is a process that helps turn PTS into PTG. People are more likely to construct a meaning out of life’s adversities, to ask themselves why this happened and what they can do with it. This is how people formulate a new purpose in life and is what has led to the creation of many charities. It happened for me too. Out of my suffering came my own purpose in life – to put people on the path to happiness.
The ultimate ‘gift’ in adversity, if you want to call it that, is that it opens you up to a deeper happiness, known as ‘eudaimonic well-being’, which is about meaning and engagement in life, whatever form that takes. Maybe pursuing a vocation or calling, supporting a community, helping to raise the new generation or contributing to a cause you’re passionate about.
What is Post-traumatic Growth is published on 18 May, 2017 by Watkins Media as part of the new #WhatIs series.
The book explores the journey from trauma to post-traumatic growth with research from leading psychologists in the field, case studies to inspire and chapters that will help you cope in the eye of the storm, strengthen your resilience to keep going and show you how it’s possible to grow through adversity.
This is the 2nd book for Watkins, following on from Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression.