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.
Antonette Mait says
Wow! I totally love the content. I had a friend who badly needs to read this too. Hope she finds time to read this. Thanks a lot!
I have to say that it makes a lot of sense. After everything that happened in 2011 I believe that my husband and I were in shock for the first three or four months, but after that we got busy and built our life back. We do have a greater understanding of our special each day is and what is truly important. I think you either have to sink or swim as they say and you just do what you have to do. I recently read a book about the Donner Expedition and the things that those people overcame and the different directions their lives took after that tragedy was very insightful. I guess it comes down to what you are made of.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Rena! Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience with this. I so agree that it does matter “what you are made of.” But the good news is that the majority of us do at least bounce-back. I think it is a question of whether we just bounce back–or bounce forward. From everything I’ve read about you on your blog I would have to say that you’ve definitely done that. Let’s keep reminding each other that it’s possible, okay? ~Kathy
Tom Sightings says
I’ve heard that “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” but I’ve never seen the concept described in such a rational, sensible and useful way. We all face trauma — some worse than others — and it’s never easy but we must face up to it and “reinterpret the situation in a more positive way” to give us power and a glimpse of a more positive future. Thanks for a great article!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Tom! Thank you. I wasn’t sure whether my readers would be that interested in something that starts out addressing “pain and trauma” but I find this so fascinating I couldn’t help myself. Remember my “poll” a while back where you noticed that my more positive sounding titles seem to get more readership? Anyway, I think this info needs to be circulated as much as possible to help us all prepare for anything that might show up. May we all find the courage, resolve and hopefulness that PTG offers if the time comes. ~Kathy
I like your description of the PTG mindset allowing people to “do better than “bounce back” from whatever trauma they have experienced, but rather to ‘bounce forward’ in strong and meaningful ways.” I attended a lecture today about the philosophy of Stoicism and can see a lot of parallels here. Epitetus believed that “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” As a slave who became one of the most influential and sought-after philosophers of his time, I would say he definitely had a PTG personality.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Janis! Isn’t that a nice visual to think of anyone experiencing pain and trauma bouncing forward, instead of just in place? And yes I agree that many of the ideas of Stoicism relate. And I agree that Epictetus was likely one of the first well-known PTG practitioners there ever was. Thanks for your thoughts on this. ~Kathy
Good post Kathy and timely when people are suffering political/emotional PTSD symptoms. I have talked with several people who have never before been political activates and now they are, becoming PTG individuals.
I guess I am a PTG person. After my bout with invasive breast cancer I started my company to help other women get a better night’s sleep. I left my corporate job/title to become an entrepreneur at age 52! I have all the characteristics of the personality of PTG so it never seemed like a leap.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Haralee! Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience with us. I so agree that you sound like a PTG candidate to me too. And yes to those of us who are also using the current political climate to reach for something that can be made even more positive from the experience. As with any trauma, it’s not easy. But when I consider the alternative I just don’t think there is much of a choice. Good for you for all the good you share with the world from your business AND you ongoing attitude. ~Kathy
Gary Lange says
Another great article Kathy and glad to be reminded of parts of recovery and “thriving” after an event. As a psychotherapist I know the five things you mentioned are so so important: Extraversion, Openness, A spiritual belief, Good social support and Acceptance coping. The healthier we are BEFORE an incident, the quicker we recover.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hey Gary! I LOVE that statement, “The healthier we are BEFORE an incident, the quicker we recover.” That’s another one of those things that makes sense but we don’t always realize it. And thanks for confirming the five elements that I researched. They too seem logical but it’s SMART to keep them in mind. Thanks for sharing your insights with us. ~Kathy
Once again, you have given a name, and supporting research, to a phenomenon that we often see around us. Thank you for sharing this.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Donna! Thank you. I’m glad you found it helpful. I personally found it helpful to remember that it is more common that PTSD by a long shot. We see the movies or TV shows where a Veteran who has PTSD suddenly goes manic and either hurts himself or others and start believing that is more common than not. While it is indeed a problem, statistics are showing that more than 50% experience PTG. That’s good for us all to remember. ~Kathy
Still the Lucky Few says
I have always admired survivors who not only come through their ordeal, but seem to thrive. Now there’s a name for it, and we owe a vote of thanks for bringing it to our attention! A traumatic experience, while deeply disturbing, does not have to be the end of happiness and growth. This is so good to know, and to keep in mind as we do our work in the helping professions, and interact with people who have suffered. Thank you, Kathy!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Diane! I agree. Of course it is SMART never to remind a person who is going through any experience of suffering and pain that there is good involved until they are good and ready to hear it. But once you know, how can you not know? I just hope and trust that should I ever be confronted with something BIG that I remember it, or at least have friends close by to help me recover what I know inside. Thanks for your thoughts. ~Kathy
Susan Mary Malone says
This is fascinating, Kathy. While I actually hadn’t heard of the term PTG (I don’t know how I missed this!), I’m familiar with the two ways we can deal with trauma. Victor Frankl lives deep in my heart, and I always think of him when trauma arises. I mean, hopefully, I’ll never spend time in a concentration camp . . .
I love the “explanatory style” part, and have been practicing that for years. It’s not sugar coating, as you say, but looking at the issue from a different perspective. It’s opened my mind to different ways of dealing with things.
As Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I love this post!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Susan! I am not at all surprised that you found this as interesting as I do. And yes, Victor Frankl is one of my heros as well. There are actually scores of stories of people who have used PTG to transform their lives. The mother who started MADD (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving) comes to mind because she took the tragedy of losing her daughter to a drunk driver and transformed the system in a powerful way. And yes, explanatory style is good reason to remember that the stories we tell have the ability to lead us to transformation or take us straight to hell. May we all remember to keep our attitude and stories headed in the right direction. ~Kathy