Post-traumatic growth is when someone experiences positive benefits after trauma. This is a silver lining in a dark cloud for many of us.
Life is a rollercoaster.
Some days we will have a spring in our step and a happiness in our hearts that we wish we could bottle up and keep forever. Other days we will struggle to find the motivation to put on a fresh T-shirt, let alone muster up the strength to leave the house.
These down patches are an inevitable part of life, and often follow difficult times at work or in our personal life. But we have some good news.
Scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue.
(And we mean this both literally and metaphorically).
Our wounds, our failures, and our challenges usually do heal … eventually.
If we work hard to overcome tough times, with a bit of luck on our side, we can become stronger because of them. Today, I want to make sure:
- You heal stronger.
- You don’t bounce back, you bounce forward.
- You recover better.
What do we do when bad things happen to good people?
Failures, challenges, and mistakes… they happen to the best of us, and it doesn’t feel great. It’s easy to look back on these times with regret, but I want to introduce you to a completely new way of thinking about the bad things that happened to us–whether it is a financial loss, a health problem, a conflict at work, or the breakdown of a relationship.
This is a concept called Post-Traumatic Growth.
What is Post-Traumatic Growth?
Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) is the positive mental shift experienced as a result of adversity.
The devastating effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or “PTSD”) after trauma is a well-documented consequence of suffering through adversity. Though we might be inclined to think PTSD is an issue that only affects those who have seen war or other situations where someone has witnessed loss of life, it can actually develop after any frightening or stressful trauma.
Scientific studies have shown that this includes events such as being involved in a car crash, being emotionally abused in a relationship, the death of a loved one, being diagnosed with a serious health condition, or any event where you have feared for your life or the life of others.
(If you think you might be suffering from PTSD you can find more information here to help you heal from these events).
Researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun discovered another phenomenon that can happen after someone experiences a trauma: Post-Traumatic Grown (PTG).
They found that people often report ways in which their psychological functioning increases after they have experienced a challenge. In other words, in certain circumstances, our mind can grow from difficulty.
Tedeschi found that across a wide range of negative experiences, as many as 90% of survivors report at least one Post-Traumatic Growth benefit.
Furthermore, a meta-analysis (the compiling of data from several sources) of 26 scientific studies found that almost 50% of trauma survivors experience Post-Traumatic Growth.
After suffering a traumatic experience, some people will show typical signs such as depression, or being withdrawn. Other people might not even feel that their experience was traumatic, and they think they’re getting on with life just fine. Here are some of the symptoms you might experience after trauma.
- difficulty concentrating
- aches and pains
- muscle tension
- withdrawing from others
Emotions After Trauma
Whether you’ve experienced just one of these symptoms, or a handful, it’s likely that you have experienced a range of emotions after trauma. These are normal. You might even have completely mixed feelings–such as guilt that you survived the incident, while also being relieved that you survived–which furthers your feelings of guilt.
Traumatic stress often goes one of two ways: either the survivor feels too much and is overwhelmed with emotion, or they feel too little emotion (often described as feeling “numb”).
Some trauma survivors will find it difficult to regulate their emotions. Research suggests this is particularly common when children have experienced such events, but for adults this tends to be a short-lived side effect of surviving trauma.
Take some time alone to reflect on the experience, and try to identify what you are feeling. Life after trauma is a rollercoaster, and it might take some time to unpack how you feel–you might even find that your emotions change over time. Perhaps you originally felt sad, but now you feel scared. Remember, this is all normal.
After a traumatic experience, you may find it difficult to believe what has happened. You might find you don’t talk about the experience to anyone at all because you haven’t accepted it in your own mind yet. This tends to be one of the first emotions after a traumatic experience.
Understandably, you might feel scared that the same thing will happen again. This might lead to you taking preventive measures, like installing more locks on the door after a break-in. However, keep an eye on how your fear is causing you to respond. Fear is the emotion we feel when we perceive an immediate danger. The problem with fear after trauma is that there tends to be no danger anymore, but we may still live in fear for some time after the event.
Having a few quiet weeks where you don’t leave the house after being mugged is a reasonable response, but if you’ve not left the house in months or years, it’s time to start tackling this emotion–with a professional, if you feel you might need the extra support.
Usually one of the easier emotions to recognize, sadness often comes when the trauma has caused the death or injury of friends or family, or if the trauma was caused by a friend or family member.
As other emotions settle, you might find that anger starts to rise. You might be angry at yourself because you feel responsible, or angry at God for letting it happen. Like other emotions listed here, some expression of anger after trauma is healthy, but feeling chronically angry can have serious health risks. Anger can be soul-consuming. Keep an eye on how much your anger is affecting your own health, and whether you are lashing out at other people, to determine if it might be worth seeking therapy to help.
One of the more pleasant emotions after trauma–particularly if it has been sustained over some time–you may feel is relief. Often, people feel relieved that the trauma is over, and they can start to heal and return to their lives.
Numbing can be particularly difficult because it is harder for healthcare practitioners to identify that someone is struggling after a traumatic event. Studies on trauma survivors have shown that family members, friends, counselors, and health staff usually assess levels of traumatic stress symptoms and the impact of the event as less serious than they are.
Life After Trauma
I want to be really clear on something: PTG does not imply that trauma is not destructive and challenging. And it does not say that victims should be able to simply bounce back to “normal life” after adversity. Rather, PTG evidence shows us that over time, people can find benefits from their adversity.
Post-Traumatic Growth holds a very important idea:
We don’t bounce back from challenges, we bounce forward.
Post-Traumatic Growth Areas
There are some specific areas that researchers have found change after adversity.
Have you found that after a traumatic event, you seek the company of your friends and family more than you did before? If you have, you are not alone.
Some victims of trauma describe that they come to value their friends and family more deeply after a trauma, and don’t take people for granted as much as before their adversity.
Serious challenges can also give us an increased sense of compassion and longing for more intimate relationships. In other words, adversity can reinvigorate our relationships and give us new priorities for the people in our life.
If you’ve experienced relationship trauma, I have a couple of challenges below for you to reflect on.
- Thought Challenge: Who helped you get through trauma?
- Thought Challenge: If you experienced adversity, did you seek out more close connections afterwards?
While some may think that experiencing trauma might make you feel like a victim, many people find that their challenge gave them deeper inner wisdom, personal strength, and gratitude. Trauma can even help people be more accepting of their vulnerabilities and limitations.
- Thought Challenge: What did you learn about yourself or the world after your adversity?
A Better Outlook on Life
Trauma can radically change and re-engineer people’s life perspective, and may even change someone’s behaviour. Often, adversity causes individuals to re-evaluate their life purpose and mission, becoming less materialistic and more able to live in the present. This is something that cancer survivors often experience.
Surveys suggest those affected by cancer felt a renewed sense of the importance of family and loved ones in their lives after they discovered they had the disease. Two-thirds of the cancer survivors surveyed said they had done something they never done before after being diagnosed.
Half got involved with a charity, while 39% went on a dream holiday.
- Thought Challenge: What do you want to do with your life?
- Thought Challenge: Why do you think you are on this Earth right now, at this time?
From Trauma to Post Traumatic Growth
If you have experienced a trauma or major adversity and you want to begin to bounce forward with confidence, there are a few elements that are known to contribute to Post-Traumatic Growth.
Don’t diminish your response to the adversity itself. You have to go through a difficult emotional processing period before bouncing forward. You can think of this like grief—you have to be able to mourn and feel before moving on. Don’t be afraid of exploring the pain and sadness of your challenge as a natural part of adversity.
Researchers have found that we have to share and talk about our adversity to process it fully. They call this constructive self-disclosure. Bottling up any trauma often leads to a worsening of symptoms. Find a safe group or confidant where you can share your story and the effects of your challenge, or a professional who can help you untangle your past.
Look at how your personal strengths got you through the trauma. How did you handle it, and what have you learned from the experience? Your number one personal strength is that nothing can stop you. Right now, you are reading this article, which means you are surviving and you are moving towards recovery.
You don’t bounce back, you bounce forward.
I hope that this message reaches you and anyone who needs it.
5 replies on “Post Traumatic Growth: Move Forward When Bad Things Happen”
I appreciate the breadth of this essay. I think that it mostly applies to trauma in which a person’s previous self is fully restored, versus a life-changing trauma. So although something like loss of life is mentioned, it pretty much barely applies. I can “bounce forward” from my own traumatic life experience but only so much. I lost a sibling suddenly, and therefore my life has been irrevocably changed and flat out damaged. I miss someone who should be here, and there is no way to soften that. I’m intrigued by the idea of what positive things *can* truly come out of trauma, but some trauma is too permanent in its nature to reveal a silver lining that is greater than the impact. Thanks for the article, and for the comments, too. Appreciated the perspectives on this.
I have a criticism of this discussion, although I love it for its positivity, I feel it is just a counter balancing of the current trend in victim-surviror mentality. I, myself, have gone through 3 personally traumatic events this life, events I define as those in which I felt I was going to die and most occurred when I was 5 or younger. I don’t view these events as those that I survived or was a victim of. I was both, of course, and more than that. My argument or criticism is more in how we present the polarities of victim or survivor, pessimism or optimism, looking back or looking forward. One of the points in this video was an increased ability to be in the present and this present for me has neither optimism because there is nothing to look forward too, nor pessimism because there is nothing to look back on, in regards to the definition of becoming totally present. If I am totally present them I am just here now, with the thoughts, emotions, sensations in the present without a story or viewing a story from a present viewpoint, which is here now sitting on my couch or whatever. While I like the positive viewpoint of trauma that this new model presents, I don’t like that it does not really go in depth on the value of the moment to moment emotions of death and life that live in the experience of trauma. Trauma is an experience that puts one on the precipice of life and death, which one usually lives from or else they would not be alive to be diagnosed with PTSD or PTG. This model points more to the resiliency and re-organization of life, which can happen after trauma if it is dealt with in a safe container and context in which the story can safely be re-told and experienced in safety instead of in uncertainty. However, the difficult emotions, the grief, the rage, the ultimate vulnerability of feeling you are going to die is not addressed adequately for this model to be congruent for me in the acknowledgement of the value of trauma, which is an intense relationship with life and death that we are sadly numb to in mainstream society, even though it is there in most people under the surface. What is beautiful is waking up to this paradox of life and death and the emotions involved in this cyclical dance, which entangle all human beings, universalizing us all into the same community in every present moment.
As someone who went through a good four year cascade of personal loss, I’ve found this to be true as I’ve bounced forward. I’m generally a pretty resilient, willful, and stubborn person, which I feel has a lot to do with it. I would love to see clinical fMRI and MRI studies of the brain as it develops through dealing and/or overcoming trauma. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are changes in brain structure and activity as new qualities emerge. I’ve definitely changed in many ways. I actually credit my trauma with helping me overcome social anxiety and giving me a focus towards life that I’ve never had before. Thanks for the article!
Love this Post Vanessa! this is a foundational concept for growth. It was the seed that sparked a new journey of personal development! Thank you for blogging on this concept! I appreciate the article.
Thank you for reading, Nahum. So glad it’s helpful!
Danielle | Science of People Team
Comments are closed.