It’s not as familiar as PTSD but it’s just as likely to come out of trauma. So what exactly is post-traumatic growth? If you’ve ever been through a traumatic experience and found that there was a silver lining on the other side, a positive in one of life’s most negative events, then you may have experienced post-traumatic growth. Summed up by the old saying – what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition known for flashbacks, nightmares, tremors and other upsetting symptoms that can haunt a sufferer as they relive the trauma over and over again. Frequently thought of as being caused by events outside the range of normal human experience – wars, terrorism or earthquakes and the like, the truth is that post-traumatic stress can be the result of any adversity that overwhelms your ability to cope. It could be a divorce, accident, diagnosis of illness, bullying or a business failure that triggers it. And while it is distressing to go through trauma, it may be comforting to know that there is something positive that can be developing at the same time. That we can, in fact, grow through adversity. Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) refers to the positive changes that come about through the process of struggling with adversity. The changes are experienced in 3 areas.
- change in your sense of self
- change in relationships
- change in philosophy of life.
PTG is more than change, people who’ve experienced it talk about having gained something from the adversity. These benefits may take their time to emerge 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 types of benefit revealed by research in the field of post-traumatic growth. 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 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 hallmark of humanity and is often revealed by tragic events.
New appreciation of life: Adversity can lead you to question everything, to alter your worldview and increase your appreciation for life itself. Making the most of every day. This is particularly the case for anyone who’s faced life-threatening illness.
New priorities and possibilities: Trauma reconnects you with what’s truly important in life. There is often a sense of ‘before’ and ‘after’ and as your life changes so do your priorities. You may become less concerned with trivia and more motivated to do something that’s meaningful. And with the endings come new beginnings.
Spiritual development: Going through trauma can lead to spiritual growth as people come through their ‘long, dark night of the soul’ and connect with the religion of their youth or a new faith. This spirituality can also take a secular form – a belief in the power of love or a deeper connection to nature.
Assimilation or accommodation – the metaphor of a broken vase
PTG depends on how able you are 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 ways you can go. Either 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 out of them like a beautiful mosaic. Life looks different but is more robust. This is accommodation.
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 comes from having meaning and purpose in life. It might lead you to embark on a new life – 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, as part of the #WhatIs series. The book explores the journey from trauma to post-traumatic growth with case studies to inspire and chapters that will help you cope in the middle of the storm, strengthen your resilience to keep going and show you how it’s possible to grow through adversity. This is 2nd book for Watkins, following on from Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression.