Trauma can either propel us or derail us. The chances are you’ve heard of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but have you ever heard about Post-traumatic growth (PTG)? It is a theory which explains the positive psychological change a person encounters as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances.
Surprisingly, those who display signs of PTG, often experience this phenomenon without even knowing what it is. So, what exactly is post-traumatic growth, and can it actually be achieved?
Much like post-traumatic stress, post-traumatic growth can occur after a stressful, terrifying or traumatic event, such as exposure to physical assault, abuse, accidents and disasters. Recent research suggests a surge of people suffering from PTSD with a link to coronavirus as an emerging consequence of the global pandemic. However, unlike PTSD, post-traumatic growth is not classified as a mental health illness, instead it is a term coined in the 1990s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun.
During their research, they found that trauma causes hardship and adversity, however, it can also act as a catalyst for something more positive. During this process, a person will 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.
Signs of Post-Traumatic Growth
Often, post-traumatic growth can be confused with resilience, but are in fact, different. Resilience is bouncing back after trauma, but PTG is going further than that. Take a rubber band for example, when you stretch it out and let it go, it returns to its original shape and size. Post-traumatic growth goes beyond that, a person will bounce further than they did before the traumatic event- they not only survive, but thrive.
According to the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory, there are seven areas of growth reported to spring from adversity:
- Greater appreciation of life
- Greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships
- Increased compassion and altruism
- The identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life
- Greater awareness and utilisation of personal strengths
- Enhanced spiritual development
- Creative growth
Are all individuals capable of Post-traumatic growth?
PTG is a relatively new area attracting researchers, nevertheless, so far one study has found that over half of those who experienced trauma reported moderate to high post-traumatic growth. During their research, Tedeschi and Calhoun discovered personality traits of the people more likely to experience PTG:
- Openness to experience
- Curious and adventurous
How can you flourish after trauma?
Whilst you can’t know for sure if you’ll experience post-traumatic growth or not, Tedeschi and Calhorne used the term, ‘deliberate rumination’ to describe consciously tackling new challenges by spending time thinking about them in an adaptive and productive way. Also, taking advantage of people who are able to provide support such as a therapist, close friend, family member or mentor, can lead to not only recovery after PTSD, but can also foster post-traumatic growth.
Aside from taking advantage of social and professional help, here are a few things you can do to foster growth and flourish after post-traumatic stress disorder:
Practice self-care: Caring for yourself and looking after your wellbeing is an act of self-compassion and self-respect. Self-care is vital after trauma because it’s crucial for reducing stress in the body. When stressed, people tend to ignore the very things that make them feel better, so it should be a priority to find time to take care of yourself.
Meditate: There is substantial scientific evidence to suggest that meditation reduces stress and subsequently plays a vital role in the process of post-traumatic growth. Meditation and other mindfulness practices help control emotions, anxiety and temptations, strengthen resilience and focus, as well as reducing stress, and increasing calm.
Cultivate optimism: When it comes to post-traumatic growth, optimism is the driving force that helps you put your plans in motion and regain your peace of mind. Having a positive mindset is scientifically proven to boost happiness and motivate you to achieve your goals. Health benefits of positive thinking and optimism include reduced stress, better psychological and physical wellbeing, and better coping skills during stressful times.
Embrace a fresh start: Part of post-traumatic growth is opening yourself up to new experiences. A fresh start brings a boost of energy and passion which can serve as a brilliant catalyst. It can motivate you to get things done, drop habits that weren’t serving you, and form new habits that are in line with your goals and values.
Be patient: There will be times when life takes the wind out of your sails, when memories of the past will seem painful, and times when you feel like you can’t take it anymore. However, as cheesy as it may sound, a storm cannot last forever.
Acceptance: Most important of all, acceptance shows acknowledgment about how you really feel. You don’t have to fight your feelings or feel guilty for having them. Resisting your emotions and shaming yourself will only cause you more pain and hold you back. Research reports that post-traumatic avoidance symptoms were found to be a major obstacle to PTG.
Instead, embrace your feelings, so you can accept and free yourself of them- however long that takes. Once they’re gone, you’re left with a space for something new to flourish, such as ideas, hopes, dreams and growth.