Post-Traumatic Growth: Suffering Meaningfully

Almost everyone has heard of post-traumatic stress and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but a related and new area of research has been on post traumatic growth. The idea of post traumatic growth is a more recent phenomenon that offers a positive approach to dealing with traumatic events. It is both a process that people undergo after experiencing trauma and an outcome where positive changes are experienced in response to struggling and making sense of that major crisis or traumatic event. It is a new, optimistic perspective on suffering and transforms a person into someone significantly different than who they were before. The struggle, not the trauma, engenders these changes. Researchers have found when questioned about trauma, more people report growth experiences as long term effects rather than stress disorders.

Post traumatic growth appears to develop in five broad areas: new possibilities, change in relationships, personal strength, philosophy on life, and spiritual or religious change. People may be more open to opportunities, find that they are more resilient, and appreciate the preciousness of life. The advocates for post traumatic growth emphasize that while changes or growth can be beneficial, all problems or stress are not dissolved. Rather, post traumatic growth occurs in the context of suffering. In addition, post traumatic growth is not universal.

Dr. Talya Rabina is a psychologist who researched the experiences of the Hurricane Katrina helper population. There have been numerous studies conducted on the negative effects of participating in relief efforts, but less research on positive effects such as learning and feeling rewarded for voluntary efforts. Dr. Rabina explains that post traumatic growth involves finding meaning out of an experience that throws one’s whole understanding of the world on its head. In her experience, she found that changes in relationships and adjustments of philosophies were the most transparent. People needed other people who had the same experience to reflect and understand that event. In addition, people redefined their values and goals and thus revised their perspective on life; this especially related to developmental stages. People who were in their twenties considered how they were going to proceed in their career. An older generation who already had an established career pondered more deeply the way in which they performed their work. Traumas, such as Hurricane Katrina, instigate post traumatic growth.

How intense does a trauma need to be in order to experience post traumatic growth?

Does it have to be a natural disaster or war, or can it be divorce or something similarly common? In order for post traumatic growth to develop, the trauma needs to threaten one’s mental security and how one perceives the world. Dr. Rabina notes that trauma needs to cause a significant amount of distress and dissonance, and this dissonance leads one to a psychological process of working through and sorting out this trauma: “the brain wants to feel even and good, and when something like trauma occurs, the brain is thrown off and needs to reformulate” which generates a new understanding of the self in relation to what’s happened. Dr. Rabina also mentions that people witness violence every day, whether in direct or indirect settings. These exposures to violence are all sort of mini traumas and our capacity for post traumatic growth depends on how we approach these traumas. Essentially, what constitutes trauma depends on the person who experiences it.

Influencing Psychologists, Individuals, and Society

Dr. Rabina finds the post traumatic growth concept useful in her clinical work. She explains that it’s easy to get pulled towards focusing on the negative because people typically enter therapy with problems. While value lies in dissecting the negative, exploring the positive side is necessary and broadens the perspective: “As a therapist we have power in the way we ask questions. If you’re asking only about the pathology and not about the potential for growth and strength then you’re not seeing the whole picture. What [post traumatic growth] has done for me is allow me to see the strength in my clients in a different way and maybe help them see it in themselves. I’m grateful for that.” She also describes that she knows the potential for growth is there in her patients but that this post traumatic growth model has provided her with a way to understand and capitalize on eliciting that growth.

The implications of post traumatic growth for individuals and society can be extremely constructive and stimulate positive change in our culture. There is a certain social transformation of trauma, where the results of trauma on individuals can produce collective social change. The founding of organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Alcoholics Anonymous are indicative of this. Even closer to home, the Eve Marie Carson Scholarship (which is awarded to students who have grown significantly in areas related to academics, social justice, and leadership) was established in response to the senseless murder of Eve Carson, UNC’s Student Body President.

Ultimately, post traumatic growth allows for an alternate, more optimistic view on life despite suffering through traumatic experiences. This is not to suggest PTSD and post traumatic stress are not real as well, and people experiencing this deserve empathy and help. Post traumatic growth work can be one way to move through the stress of the trauma and regain a sense of well-being.