Most of us are familiar with the idea that trauma, especially extreme trauma like war, rape or life-threatening illness, can lead to a condition called PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome.) But what many might not realize is that many people who have experienced those extreme tragedies not only learn to cope and adapt but actually manage to thrive. Called Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) these resilient people appear to be both “antifragile” and “stress inoculated.” Best of all, this mindset allows them to do better than “bounce back” from whatever trauma they have experienced, but rather to “bounce forward” in strong and meaningful ways.
It occurred to me the other day that many people I know are experiencing a certain degree of PTSD during the last several months. Perhaps the SMARTest thing any of us can do would be to cultivate the possibility of PTG into our everyday lives so that we adjust, learn and create something new and better in the days ahead.
The label Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) first appeared in 1995 out of the work of a psychologist named Dr. Richard Tedeschi from the University of North Carolina. Tedeschi’s work focused on the parents who had children who died from either disease or accident. Attempting to understand how parents might cope with such profound loss, he discovered some people not only turned it around, they used their grief to do something transformative for themselves and others. What he observed was that while the process of growth does not diminish or eliminate the pain of loss and tragedy, positive gains are possible in spite of the most shattering heartbreak.
On the flipside, PTSD first applied to veterans of the Vietnam War. It is estimated that up to 30% of those who saw action in Vietnam and other wars suffer from the affliction. Since that time, it has been determined that anyone who survives any catastrophic event, natural disaster, or acts of violence and pain are potential victims to the symptoms. Those symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, high levels of anxiety and depression, substance abuse and an inability to cope with the trauma.
According to the VA Administration in Nebraska , up to 7.8% of the U.S. population will experience PTSD during some time in their life. However, research shows that most people are resilient overall. Estimates say that while 50-60% of North Americans will experience different traumas in their lives, only 5-10% will ever develop symptoms of PTSD.
So is PTG just another name for resiliency? Not really. PTG utilizes the experience, no matter how traumatic, and allows a person to arrive at a new and more beneficial understanding of themselves and their lives. Resilience, on the other hand, allows a person to overcome challenges but basically remain the same after the experience has been resolved in one manner or another. Resilience requires useful coping strategies, where PTG requires a change of consciousness or transformation. In other words, the thriving of PTG includes not only resiliency but an enhanced improvement in the quality of life following the trauma.
What Benefits Come From PTG?
There are approximately five benefits that show up in a person who experiences PTG. They are:
- Greater appreciation of life,
- Changed sense of priorities, new possibilities,
- Warmer, more intimate relationships,
- Greater self-confidence and personal strength,
- Enhanced spirituality;
Remember, no one is suggesting that the answer to trauma or extreme stress is to pretend it away or guilt another for not moving past the experience. And it is never valid to try to convince another that the trauma or the hardships they have endured are a good thing. But merely knowing that PTG is available and that the possibility of something good can result from the struggle, can be very beneficial. Research has proven that people who experienced everything from the violence of terrorism to the trauma of breast cancer have managed to find positive psychological growth through PTG.
Predictors of PTG
But what type of person normally experiences PTG? Clearly, much of the response has to do with a person’s mindset and perceptions. But beyond that, research points out that the following are usually aspects of the person’s personality.
- Openness to experiences,
- A spiritual belief
- Good social support,
- Acceptance coping…. the ability to accept situations which cannot be changed;
Research shows that of these five, the scientists consider the first two to be the most important.
Finding PTG On Our Own
Obviously, if a person is suffering from PTSD along with related symptoms they should seek out competent mental health aid. But what about the rest of us? Anyone who is feeling overwhelmed, helpless, hopeless and deeply stressed would benefit from realizing that no matter how traumatic, it is possible that something good can come from the experience. Not only can we find something beneficial out of any stress, we ourselves can become stronger and more empowered to meet the future. So how can we do that?
According to author and professional educator Shawn Achor, we have several strategies to consider. The first is to attempt to reinterpret the situation in a more positive way. By using our imagination and learning to describe the event in a more positive way, we can be empowered. He also suggests that we stay as optimistic as possible. In addition, he suggests that we should meet the situation head-on (rather than deny or avoid it) as much as we are able. Achor says, “It appears that it is not the type of event per se that influences posttraumatic growth, but rather the subjective experience of the event.” He goes on to says, “things do not necessarily happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best out of things that happen.”
Achor also describes two other techniques that hold great power to transform our life. The first is to “change your counterpoint.” He uses the question: If you were in a bank with 50 other people and some robbers came in and shot you in the arm, how would you describe the event?” Obviously, most people would see the trauma, resent the experience, and feel victimized. On the other hand, Shawn says that it is equally possible for you to say, “Wow, that could have been so much worse! I feel so fortunate to be alive.” Or, “There were 50 people in that bank and I was the only one that took a bullet. I’m lucky to be alive to tell the tale.” Remember, we are the people choosing the “alternate-fact.” While our alternate-fact doesn’t change the truth, it does describe it from a different perspective.
The other technique Achor describes is to change our “explanatory style”. Whenever we communicate our experiences to others, we have a style uniquely ours. Some of our stories highlight the good and share that narrative. Others pick out everything that is wrong or bad and share that. According to Achor, there are studies that show that our “explanatory style—how we choose to explain the nature of past events—has a crucial impact on our happiness and future success.” Obviously, our explanatory style can be sculpted so that it aids in PTG.
At the same time, Jim Rendon, author of the book, Upside—The New Science of Post Traumatic Growth believes that achieving a PTG mindset is fairly natural to us all. He says in his book, “In study after study, research shows that about half or more of trauma survivors report positive change as a result of their experience,” Rendon writes. “…Every time I talk to one of these people in my reporting — someone who has totally altered his life, his sense of self, someone who says he is thankful for what most of us would consider a terrible tragedy — I am thrilled and amazed,” he continues. “What an exceptional person, I think. And then I remember all of the others who have told me similar stories. This kind of miraculous transformation, it turns out, is hardly unusual. The potential for such inspiring change lives inside most people.”
Several years ago I was in a motorcycle accident and broke my left arm and injured that shoulder requiring surgery. I wasn’t able to use my left arm for several weeks afterward and kept it in a sling to keep it still. When I finally started physical therapy, my arm was so weak and painful I couldn’t even crawl the wall. And while I had to take it slow, I also knew it was necessary to keep going. Not only did I learn that anything we don’t use regularly or develop naturally, becomes weaker as days go by. I also discovered that my broken left arm, once healed, was now much stronger than my right never-broken arm would ever be.
While my experience is nothing compared to the trauma that some people experience, I think remembering that just like my arm, anything we hide away or try to protect will never recover until we take the time to rehabilitate it. By the same token, once we have worked through our recovery, we can be stronger because of the experience. Perhaps even better, we can begin to see the world in a more interconnected whole where we have an important part to play.
When you think about it, the implications of PTG also extends to experiences on a global, national and regional scale as well. Depending on which side of the political pendulum you inhabit, you might be traumatized by current events. While experiences can appear potentially catastrophic, holding the belief that the potential for positive transformation exists can be empowering. Remember, regardless of the trauma, studies show that for some people, the worst possible experience turned out to be the best thing that ever could have happened.
Clearly, none of us consciously seeks trauma in order to experience growth or to become stronger or wiser. And learning about PTG won’t stop it from happening. But should trauma infect us at any time in our lives, the possibility always exists to create positive change. Regardless what happens in the world, our country, on Facebook, or our own back yard, it is SMART to remember that Post Traumatic Growth could lead to the transformation we all want to see happen.