What is Post-traumatic Growth?
The Journey from Adversity to Growth
Trauma such as the loss of a loved one or the diagnosis of serious illness can test us to our very limits. And while it can destroy life as we know it, it may be comforting to know that something more positive may also be happening. The old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is true. Traumatic experiences can act as a springboard to personal growth and open the gates to a deeper form of well-being which can lead to transformation. This is post-traumatic growth. It may not be as familiar as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) but it is just as likely to come out of trauma. In fact research suggests it is more so.
Experiencing a short spell of post-traumatic stress is a natural consequence of going through trauma, but whereas we tend to think of PTS as being caused by events outside of normal human experience – war, terrorism or natural disasters – the truth is that it can be the result of any adversity that overwhelms your ability to cope. Divorce, accidents, bullying or a business failure can all trigger the nightmares and flashbacks as your body and mind struggle to deal with the adversity. However further down the line (sometimes decades later) post-traumatic growth can occur in 3 areas.
- change in your sense of self
- change in relationships
- change in philosophy of life.
Post-traumatic growth is not only about change, people talk about having gained something from the adversity. “I no longer see what life took from me – I see what it gave me” is how one survivor of a double childhood bereavement puts it. There are 5 dimensions in PTG and it’s estimated that around 90% of trauma survivors will experience one of these. The benefits may take time to emerge but are no less substantial for it.
Greater personal strength: People often talk about feeling more alive having come through a major stressful event 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 and there is a greater sense of authenticity and warmth. You may encounter 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 facing serious illness.
New priorities and possibilities: Trauma can act as a turning point with a sense of life ‘before’ and ‘after’ the trauma. As your life changes so do your priorities. You may feel motivated to do something new and meaningful and abandon the old life. Trauma brings endings for sure but with those come new beginnings.
Spiritual development: Going through trauma can lead to a deepening of spirituality as people emerge from their ‘long, dark night of the soul’ and search for meaning. They may seek solace in the faith of their youth or find themselves 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 shattered vase
Prof Stephen Joseph, one of the leading researchers in the field, describes PTG using the metaphor of a shattered vase. When trauma hits your life you can either attempt to glue the fragments back together – life will look the same but it will be more fragile. This is known as assimilation – trying to carry on with life as it was before. Or you can pick up the pieces and make something new and sturdy like a beautiful mosaic. Life looks different but it’s stronger. This is accommodation.
Trying to make sense of the trauma by asking yourself why this happened and what you can do with it helps to turn PTS into PTG. This is how the alchemy happens, transforming a negative into something positive. It’s what underpins the creation of many charities aiming to make something good out of the suffering of the founders. This can lead to a new purpose in life.
The ‘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 and often takes the form of serving a purpose beyond the self. It might be having a new vocation or contributing to a cause you’re passionate about.
What is Post-traumatic Growth is published on 18 May, 2017 in Europe, 20th June 2017 in the USA as part of the #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 my second book published by Watkins, following on from Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression.
Want to find out more about post-traumatic growth? Book talk at Watkins Bookshop, 19 Cecil Court, London WC2N 4EZ on Thurs June 1st from 630 to 8pm and available online thereafter.