Post Traumatic Growth: Is It Really Possible To Change For The Better After Trauma?
Updated May 12, 2020
Reviewer Melinda Santa
Post-traumatic growth is a relatively new subject for the field of psychology. The idea has been around for a long time, though, and seems to be gaining in popularity. From sources ranging from ancient religious traditions and mythology to popular psychology and New-Age spiritual gurus, we often hear that we can become better people through suffering. Does what doesn't kill us make us stronger? Or, does it damage us beyond repair, leaving us to wither slowly until we ultimately die of something else entirely? As it turns out, the answer is different for different people.
What Is Post Traumatic Growth?
The concept of post-traumatic growth has captured the attention of research psychologists, individual therapists, and celebrities interested in positive psychology. Before 1980, the view of most psychologists was that any ideas of positive changes coming from tragedy were merely defense mechanisms or delusions. Now, though, psychologists are developing a new attitude towards this phenomenon, hailing it as a healthy way to deal with trauma. So, what is posttraumatic growth? A brief definition may make it clearer for you.
Post-traumatic growth definition
The Posttraumatic Growth Research Group at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where the term was coined, defines posttraumatic growth as 'A positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.'
Post-traumatic growth vs. resiliency
People often mistakenly equate post-traumatic growth with resiliency, but this definition is not valid. Resiliency means that you bounce back to normal after a crisis. Post-traumatic growth goes beyond resiliency. Rather than bouncing back to what is normal for you, you reach an even higher level of wisdom and compassion than what was normal for you before.
FAQ on Post-Traumatic Growth
Q: Does everyone experience post-traumatic growth?
A: No. According to studies done so far, some people lose ground developmentally while others gain ground.
Q: Are psychologists saying trauma can be a good thing?
A: No, definitely not! Trauma is not good. You should always avoid trauma whenever you can. It can be damaging to you in many ways, and it might or might not lead you to grow as a person. The risks are too great and the benefits uncertain in any individual case. Although the trauma is not a good thing, though, you can use it as a springboard to tapping into your inner strength.
Q: If I have post-traumatic growth, does it mean I won't suffer from trauma?
A: PTG does not keep you from feeling the pain of trauma. In fact, research has shown that people who wallow in their misery for a while, ruminating about what the tragedy means and feeling miserable about it, are more likely to grow through the trauma than those who do not allow themselves to experience the painful feelings brought on by the trauma fully.
Growth Areas in PTG
So, what kind of growth are we talking about, anyway? Researchers have identified five different areas of improvement people can experience after trauma.
Greater appreciation of life
Those who experience post-traumatic growth can become more aware of the value of their own lives and life in general. They feel this appreciation as an emotion. Many 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 small pleasures and everyday life, too. They may spend more time appreciating nature or doing activities that make them happy. Their appreciation of life can 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 develop more satisfying relationships with the ones they care about most. They can also become more socially active and gregarious. They often value their relationships more, so they naturally want to do what they can to maintain and improve those relationships. The wisdom they've gained through the traumatic experience gives them a greater ability to make better choices in how to interact with others.
Seeing new possibilities
People who have achieved growth after going through a traumatic event often become more aware of the inherent opportunities in each new experience they encounter later. Because they've lived through something terrible and survived it, they see what is before them more easily, with their mind unclouded by despair. Then, they continue to seek the higher path among those options.
Gaining personal strength
If you're wondering whether Nietzsche's assertion that 'that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger' is true, the answer is yes, but only for those who experience post-traumatic growth. While others become emotionally weaker after trauma, those who can grow after trauma can experience that growth as a gain in personal power and strength.
Have you ever noticed that many people 'find God' 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. Still, others may leave formal religion altogether to embark on their unique spiritual journey. These changes typically come from a profound sense that there is something good in the world that can't be explained easily. This is their higher power, and they desire to connect with it in a deeper way than before.
Measuring Post-Traumatic Growth
Researchers who study post-traumatic growth 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 these tests, the trauma that may or may not has triggered positive change is ascertained. Then, the subjects are tested on their changes in the five growth areas listed above. Scientists then study the results of these test, comparing other factors that are different or the same for people who have or have not grown through their trauma.
Can I Achieve Growth Through Trauma?
Some people are more likely to experience PTG than others. If you are in any of the following groups, post-traumatic growth may come easily for you. However, that doesn't mean that people who don't fall in these groups can't have post-traumatic growth.
Researchers have found that two types of people are more likely to have personal growth after trauma. These are extroverts and people who are more open to new experiences. Past PTG can also lead to future PTG for some people.
A scientist who has studied post-traumatic growth also find that those who have grown after trauma before typically grow more easily through additional traumas that happen to them later. Certainly, that is no reason to seek out trauma. However, knowing that your experience can help you, later on, can be comforting.
Do I Have the Power to Choose Post Traumatic Growth?
The most natural question after learning about post-traumatic growth is 'Can I make this happen when I have trauma in my own life?' Post-traumatic growth is still a relatively new subject in psychology. Questions remain about how much control you have over whether you thrive or falter after a traumatic event.
It's possible that addressing your emotional challenges before trauma happens can help prepare you for growth. You can work on your social skills so that connections with others happen more naturally for you. Also, you can work on communications skills to make building healthier relationships easier. 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.
What can you do if the trauma has already happened to you, though? Is it too late to have any control over the outcome? That question is still being debated. Still, it stands to reason that you'll be more likely to have PTG if you chose an attitude of willingness to grow and seek help from someone trained to work with people who have experienced trauma.
While you can't force PTG, a counselor can facilitate post-traumatic growth. Licensed counselors at BetterHelp.com are available to help you improve your mental health generally or work toward post-traumatic growth after a crisis. The cost is very affordable, and online therapy is an amazingly convenient way to work on your problems. You can do it wherever and whenever you choose.
Researchers still have a lot to learn about PTG, but it isn't too early to put what we already know into practice. With the right counselor for you, you can rebind from serious trauma through the therapeutic process. You may not have complete control over whether you grow emotionally after trauma, but you can do what you can do. You can choose to seek the higher path among the roads before you. For people who have experienced trauma, the first step in that better way is to decide that you'll do whatever you can do to make PTG happen for you. And, the second step? It's to find a guide to lead you through your journey.