It’s no easy road, but experts say trauma can lead to new beginnings.
You may have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It’s a mental health condition that arises after a traumatic event, often characterized by flashbacks, severe anxiety, and disturbing thoughts.
Fewer people are likely to have heard of post-traumatic growth.
While trauma can invoke a terrifying and debilitating response, in some cases it can be a catalyst for positive changes. In the best cases, it may even spark growth, strength, and resilience.
Post-traumatic growth happens when you’re able to transform trauma and use adversity to your advantage.
The question is, how do you do it? Read on to find out.
“Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is where someone has been affected by PTSD and finds a way to take new meaning from their experiences in order to live their lives in a different way than prior to the trauma,” explains Dr. Marianne Trent, a clinical psychologist and owner of Good Thinking Psychological Services.
“Examples of areas for growth include personal strength, appreciation for life, new possibilities in life, spiritual change, and relationships with others,” Trent says. “Examples of PTG can be vast, ranging from writing books, finding God, starting charities, and many more. “
According to environmental psychologist and well-being consultant Lee Chambers, PTG can present itself in all sorts of ways, like uncovering latent talent and ability, finding the confidence to face new challenges, and discovering a feeling of strength.
“It tends to generate a level of mindfulness and gratitude for life and the present moment and a focus on those relationships that should be prioritized, usually those that the individual feels were there for them in difficult times,” explains Chambers.
“Other often-reported outcomes are a desire to help others and give back, appreciation for life, more self-awareness and more compassion for others.”
While post-traumatic growth is nothing new, you may hear more about it as we exit the pandemic.
A recent study published in the Journal of Psychiatry discovered that 88 percent of the survey’s 385 respondents said that they’d experienced positive effects from challenging pandemic circumstances, such as homeschooling, loss of income, and health concerns.
In particular, respondents noted positive improvements in family relationships and reported a greater appreciation for life. Others said that they had experienced spiritual growth because of pandemic trauma and reported improved mental health.
Post-traumatic growth begs an obvious question: Why do some people grow from trauma while others are crushed by it?
Trent and Chambers say the following factors play a major role:
- a strong support system
- personality traits like extraversion and openness
- the ability to integrate the traumatic experience
- developing new belief systems after the traumatic experience
“Being able to find the benefit from traumatic events is impacted by so many variables,” says Chambers.
One major factor is the strength of your support system. Those who have a strong network of supportive family and friends and the resources to seek mental health care are more likely to bounce back, studies show.
Psychology also plays a role.
“The two psychological traits which indicate a higher likelihood of experiencing post-traumatic growth are openness to experience and extraversion,” Chambers explains.
“This would likely be because openness allows the reconsideration of belief systems, and extroverts are more likely to initiate a response and actively seek social connection. Having positive personality traits such as optimism and future-focus can also play a part, allowing us to see the potential upside and utilize it.”
Integrating the experience
Trent says that PTG occurs when the individual who experienced trauma is able to integrate their experience into their lives.
“In doing so, this leads to the development of new belief systems,” she says.
Otherwise, individuals may remain in the traumatized state.
“In my specialist work with people in trauma therapy, it seems that those who are less able to assimilate their experiences into their lives are more likely to get stuck,” says Trent.
PTG or resilience?
Trent points out that you technically have to experience post-traumatic stress before you can experience post-traumatic growth.
“In order to be classed as PTG, the person would have had to have experienced symptoms of PTSD [first],” she explains. “Without these symptoms, any growth would be attributed to resilience rather than growth specifically due to the trauma.”
Can anyone use stressful events to foster a deeper appreciation for life? Both Trent and Chambers say yes.
They recommend seeking professional mental health services, including:
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- Compassion-focused therapy (CFT)
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT)
“Accessing effective, evidence-based trauma treatments… can be life-changing,” says Trent. “The impacts of post-treatment can be like night and day for people in terms of the increase in functioning and decrease in trauma symptoms.”
She also confirms that these approaches are effective for a wide range of trauma, including:
- single event trauma
- multiple/complex PTSD
- anxiety and depression related to trauma
Chambers adds an important disclaimer.
“We have to be mindful that trauma impacts us all differently, and not to suppress or ignore our suffering in a naive pursuit of optimism,” he says. “By minimizing our trauma and its impact, we may find ourselves not being able to healthily express our negative emotions and reduce our chance of benefiting from PTG by reducing the experience.”
If you’ve experienced trauma, there are steps you can take toward integration. While it takes time, you can develop a post-traumatic growth response to your experience.
These steps include:
- reflecting on your experiences and emotions
- fostering a sense of community
- seeking mental health support
It’s important to note that some trauma may be too much to process on your own. In those cases, it’s important to seek help from a qualified professional.
As a first step, Chambers suggests processing your emotions by writing them down.
“Reflection on what we’ve been through and how we’ve handled it, especially writing it down, helps us to become more aware of how we handled our world-changing overnight,” he says.
As we reflect, we can cultivate gratitude.
“We can consider things we appreciate and are grateful for and the meaning in our lives,” says Chambers. “When things are taken away, and we become resourceful, we may start to see how rich our lives are.”
Chambers believes fostering a sense of community and seeking support from people you trust can help, too.
“Communities have come together to support each other [during the pandemic], fostering bonds and helping the vulnerable,” he explains. “Many people say this intentional connection has made them feel more appreciative of others and that they feel part of something bigger.”
For Trent, it’s about seeking mental health support and reaching out to the people close to you first and foremost.
According to Trent, symptoms of trauma include:
If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, Trent recommends the following steps:
- Speak with your doctor or call your local emergency mental health services.
- Speak with a trusted friend or family member about what you’re experiencing.
- Consider writing a journal about your experiences. The very process of writing things down from A–Z can actually help with the processing of events.
- Rather than pushing your challenging thoughts or feelings away or using distraction techniques, it can be helpful to learn to tolerate them for longer time periods. Using distress tolerance techniques such as box breathing for three to four breath cycles can actually increase the ability to handle distressing thoughts.
- Learning about stabilization techniques or accessing psychological therapy can be incredibly useful.
“In simple terms, the concept of post-traumatic growth lies in the understanding that traumatic, stressful, and adverse events that happen to human beings have the potential to generate positive benefits,” Chambers surmises.
“These events, which can range from severe illness and loss of a loved one to war conflict and sexual assault, are often experiences that can transform an individual’s life, and post-traumatic growth are the positive outcomes from enduring the psychological struggle of these events.”
Knowing that traumatic events can be a catalyst for positive growth may bring about hope if you’re managing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
However, it’s important not to minimize your experience of trauma and to take the time to properly process it, rather than rushing to achieve a false sense of optimism.
With the proper support, doing so could help you to move into a more positive space over time.
Victoria Stokes is a writer from the United Kingdom. When she’s not writing about her favorite topics, personal development, and well-being, she usually has her nose stuck in a good book. Victoria lists coffee, cocktails, and the color pink among some of her favorite things. Find her on Instagram.