There has been a lot of attention given to post-traumatic stress, and rightly so. It can have devastating effects on individuals and families, and treatment can provide relief that is so desperately needed. But fewer people are aware of the phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth, which is the positive change that can occur after adversity.
What post-traumatic growth is not
Let’s start by talking about what post-traumatic growth isn’t. It is not the opposite of post-traumatic stress. In fact, many people struggle with post-traumatic stress after an event and then experience the growth after they work through their distress. There are those who work through the struggle and move towards post-traumatic growth without experiencing post-traumatic stress at all. Post-traumatic stress is also not the same thing as resilience, which is often described as the ability to bounce back. It is not clear why individual reactions to similar situations are so different.
What is post-traumatic growth?
Post-traumatic growth occurs when a person experiences trauma that challenges their core beliefs about life, struggles psychologically (possibly developing post-traumatic stress disorder), and eventually finds personal growth and a new meaning and purpose for life. Richard Tedeschi PhD, one of the developers of the post-traumatic growth theory, states that, “People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life.” This may come from the realization that ‘if I could get through that, I can do a lot of things.’
What can I do to increase my post-traumatic growth?
There are some things that might help to improve your ability to experience growth after a trauma. Seeking to build or rebuild connections is in important part of the process. Close relationships can help combat the isolation that can so often follow a traumatic event. People who know us well can also help us discover our underlying strengths and core beliefs about life. Another important part of post-traumatic growth is finding a way to give back. It can be an important part of making meaning, especially if you are able to use your negative experiences to ease the suffering of someone in a similar situation.
Post-traumatic growth can’t be rushed
It is important not to rush the process towards growth, especially if you are trying to help a friend or family member. When a disturbing event occurs, it can take some time to process what happened. Jumping too quickly to “looking on the bright side” can invalidate the reality of the struggle and lead an individual to feel misunderstood or defective. It may be necessary to seek professional help or a peer support group to assist with the challenging parts of recovery before growth is possible.