Post-Traumatic Growth

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Many people outside of Mental Health professionals have never heard of this term. Ironically, those who exhibit PTG have definitely not heard of it. Quite interesting that one embodies this phenomenon without even knowing that’s what it is.

So what is Post-Traumatic Growth? Well, it’s a term coined in the 90s by researchers, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, a couple of researchers at UNCC. They found that trauma causes suffering but that it can also be a catalyst for something bigger, perhaps a new meaning in life. After hundreds of interviews and years of research studies, they found that those who exhibit Post-Traumatic Growth, show the following traits:

  • Increased inner strength
  • Open to new possibilities in life
  • Closer and deeper relationships
  • Enhanced appreciation of life
  • Stronger spirituality

So how is this different than “bouncing back” after a trauma. All humans have the capacity for resilience. Think of a rubber band; when you stretch it out and then let it go, it returns to its original shape. PTG goes beyond that; you don’t return to your baseline, you recalibrate to something new and better. I like to think of the difference in “surviving” and “thriving.” You aren’t just assimilating to your new circumstances, but adapting.

What might this look like in the real world? Once you know this concept, you tend to find numerous examples of this in everyday life. Listen to survivors’ stories and you will hear it. From the survivor of a horrific accident who is now paralyzed and become a motivational speaker to parents who have created a non-profit to support other parent’s who’s child is going through the condition that their child passed away from. A classical example is of Viktor Frankl who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl was a Psychiatrist in Poland during the Holocaust who had started research on helping other’s find meaning in their life. It had not really gone anywhere and then Frankl survived at least 3 concentration camps. He lost his wife, parents, and countless friends and contacts. His research took off afterwards. If he could find meaning in his life by surviving something as horrific as the Holocaust, he certainly could be inspirational to others in doing the same. Had he not gone through what he did, he may not have been as effective in developing logotherapy which is helpful in finding meaning in one’s life.

Are all individuals capable of PTG? All individuals are capable but the research shows over half of those who experience a trauma fall into this category. It’s not something that one should strive for after a trauma. The work takes time. Research shows that those who fall into the category of PTG have the following characteristics:

  • Strong social support
  • Have spirituality
  • Optimistic
  • Curious or adventurous
  • Better at self-regulation and have a problem-solving focus

What may assist someone in this growth? Certainly not jumping right into it. Give yourself time and space to began healing from what you went through. Let this unfold naturally when you are ready. Asking for support, social and professional, develop a gratitude practice, find an outlet to express yourself(writing, art, music, dance), and create connections with others who have experienced something similar. Tedeschi and Calhoun developed a term called “deliberate rumination.” This means actively tackling the new challenges by spending time thinking about it in an adaptive and productive way.

Is there a way to support someone in this? As a support person, you can have patience and just listen. As support people there is a pressure that seems to develop inside in wanting to “help them feel better” when in actuality they just want someone to listen. Give the survivor time and space to heal.

Interested in other resources on this topic? The following books and workbooks may be helpful:

Upside by Jim Rendon

Mindfulness & Grief by Heather Stang

Post-Traumatic Growth Workbook by Richard Tedeschi

Finding Meaning by David Kessler

I was interviewed on “The Wandering Widow” podcast by Kelly Howard on Post-Traumatic Growth.