Post-Traumatic Growth: Is It Possible To Change For The Better After Trauma?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated June 27, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

The term post-traumatic growth was first coined by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun to describe the positive psychological change that can occur in the aftermath of trauma. Though their research may be relatively new, the idea that hardship can lead to positive change has been a common theme across religious traditions, literature, and philosophy. 

In this article, we’ll explore post-traumatic growth (PTG), what forms it can take, and options for further support.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Moving forward after trauma can be painful

What is post-traumatic growth?

Post-traumatic growth refers to the personal growth that can occur following a psychological struggle, such as a traumatic event or period of hardship. The types of positive outcomes an individual experiences can vary, and may include improved relationships, spiritual growth, a deeper appreciation for life, greater self awareness, or a newfound sense of purpose.

Growth vs. resilience

People might mistakenly equate post-traumatic growth with resilience, but the two are generally not the same. Resilience typically refers to a person’s ability to return to normal following a crisis. Post-traumatic growth, on the other hand, describes a process where a person goes through a significant transformation following the struggle, even surpassing their pre-trauma state. 

Possible growth areas after traumatic events

Researchers have found that improvements tend to occur in five general areas:

Greater appreciation of life

Those who experience post-traumatic growth can become more aware of the value of their own lives and develop a deeper appreciation for life in general. They may feel this appreciation as an emotion. Many might also show their appreciation for life by giving back to their local or global community. 

A greater appreciation of life can mean experiencing greater joy in life’s small, everyday pleasures. They may spend more time appreciating nature or doing activities that make them happy. Their appreciation of life can also show up in greater interest in the world around them. 

It can also increase their motivation to make the world a better place.

Improved relationships with others

Some people who experience post-traumatic growth might develop more satisfying relationships with the ones they care about most. They can also become more socially active and gregarious. 

They may also value their relationships more, possibly prompting them to do what they can to maintain and improve those relationships. The wisdom they've gained through traumatic events may also help them with how they interact with others.

Seeing new possibilities

People who have achieved positive growth after going through a traumatic event can become more aware of the inherent opportunities in each new experience they encounter later. Because they've experienced something difficult and survived it, they may see what is before them with added clarity and hope. 

Gaining personal strength

If you're wondering whether Nietzsche's assertion that “what does not kill me makes me stronger” is true, the answer may be yes for those who experience post-traumatic growth. Those who grow after trauma can experience that growth as a gain in personal strength. They may also develop a greater sense of self-awareness, becoming more attuned to their values, core beliefs, and emotional responses.

Spiritual change

Have you ever noticed that many people find religion or change from one religion to another following a personal crisis? Some people may become more active in their present religious community or embark on a new spiritual quest after experiencing a crisis. Still, others may leave formal religion altogether to embark on their unique spiritual journey. These spiritual changes may come from a profound sense that there is something good in the world that can't be explained easily, and they may desire to connect with it in a deeper way than before.

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Measuring post-traumatic growth

Researchers who study post-traumatic growth generally need to be able to identify the signs that it has happened. The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory and other psychological tests can provide them with this information. 

For the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory, the trauma that may or may not have triggered positive change can be ascertained. Then, the subjects may then be tested on their changes in the five growth areas listed above. Scientists can then study the results of tests, possibly comparing other factors that are different or the same for people who have or have not grown through their trauma.

Who is most likely to experience post-traumatic growth?

Some people may be more likely to experience post-traumatic growth than others. This may be due to a number of variables, including the nature and severity of the traumatic event they experienced, their support system, and overall mental and physical health, to name a few.

Researchers have also identified two positive personality traits that may make some individuals more likely to experience personal growth after trauma—extraversion and openness. Extraversion describes the tendency towards sociability, while openness refers to one’s receptiveness to new experiences.

If you have one or both traits, post-traumatic growth may be more likely; however, it may be helpful to think of these “traits” as skills that can be learned. 

Do I have the power to choose post-traumatic growth?

A common question for many after learning about post-traumatic growth is “Can I make this happen when I have trauma in my own life?” The answer may be nuanced. Post-traumatic growth is a relatively new subject in psychology at the time of this publication. Questions remain about how much control you have over whether you thrive or falter after a traumatic event.

However, there may be some steps you can take to achieve more positive outcomes in the wake of a traumatic event. For example, addressing your emotional challenges before trauma happens can help prepare you for growth, making you more receptive. You can also work on your social skills so that connections with others happen more naturally for you in the wake of trauma and hardship.

Additionally, as you face and work on any mental health challenges you might have, you can become mentally stronger even without going through a traumatic experience.

Recognizing posttraumatic stress disorder

In some cases, traumatic experiences can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health condition characterized by intrusive memories, avoidance of triggering situations or conversations, and negative physical or emotional changes or patterns. These symptoms can significantly impact daily life and may interfere with one’s ability to function normally.

If you have experienced a trauma, whether recently or in the distant past, it may be worth connecting with a mental health professional. They can help you understand your trauma, develop healthy coping strategies, and work towards healing and recovery.

Seeking help through online therapy

If you are trying to move forward from past trauma, speaking with a therapist can help. While post-traumatic growth is not generally considered to be universal, a therapist can help you work through past trauma and find ways to live well in the wake of your experience. 

Talking about past trauma can often feel very vulnerable and personal, and it may help to be able to talk about it in a space where you feel most safe and at ease. With online therapy, you can meet with a therapist from wherever you have an internet connection and feel most comfortable—whether that’s your home or another safe place. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Moving forward after trauma can be painful

Is help through online therapy

Research has found details that suggest that online therapy can be an effective option for a range of concerns, including those who are working to survive and live well in the wake of trauma. 

For instance, one research study examined the effects of an internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy intervention for complicated grief on post-traumatic growth and optimism. It found that “post-traumatic growth increased” in the group that received the internet-based treatment.  

Takeaway

Post-traumatic growth refers to the idea that a positive change can occur after a person experiences trauma. Growth might occur in five general areas: greater appreciation of life, improved relationships with others, seeing new possibilities, increased sense of strength and spiritual changes. If you’re looking for support with coping after trauma, online therapy can help. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need. 

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