Post Traumatic Growth: Can Healing Make Us Better People?
Updated: May 31, 2021
Trauma is an unfortunate reality for many of us. Chances are that if you haven’t personally experienced it, you know someone who has. Around 60% of men and 50% of women have experienced trauma at least once in their lives. Going through a traumatic experience tends to have devastating effects on the way in which we live our lives, interact with others and view the world and ourselves.
But can the effects of trauma extend beyond pain and distress? It looks like that may be the case. In the 90’s, two psychologists named Dr. Richard Tedeschi and Dr. Lawrence Calhoun developed the theory of Post Traumatic Growth (PTG), which states that those who go through trauma can do more than recover from the damaging experience; they can actually experience personal growth.
Signs of PTG include an increased appreciation of life, improved relationships with others, a sense of having new possibilities in life, increased personal strength and spiritual change. PTG tends to cause significant changes in a person's life philosophy and values. It also leads to improved physical functioning, greater resilience and the ability to problem-solve and cope with stress in the future. Individuals who experience PTG also report having a higher quality of life and greater life satisfaction than they had prior to the trauma.
Recent research has found that 30-70% of people who have experienced some kind of trauma have experienced PTG (Joseph & Butler, 2010).
Personality can play a part in a person's ability to experience PTG. Those who are high in openness to experience and extraversion have a higher chance of experiencing PTG. Other predictors of PTG include optimism and having a future orientation. Age and gender seem to be a factor as well, with women having a greater likelihood of experiencing PTG compared to men and adolescents and young adults having a greater likelihood than children and older adults.
A major contributor to one’s chances of experiencing PTG through trauma recovery is having one or more relationships where they feel validated, cared for and accepted. These relationships can be with a partner, a family member, a friend, a therapist or a spiritual leader.
It is important to remember that PTG does not diminish the severity and pain of going through a traumatic experience. It is a positive by-product, not of the trauma itself, but of the process of struggling, healing and learning to grow from trauma.
While PTG is not a guarantee, understanding it serves as a helpful reminder of human resilience and transcendence in the face of challenges. It shows us that we have the ability to not only overcome our adversities but to grow from them. It can help foster hope in times of suffering.
Years ago, a friend of mine described her own experience with recovery and growth from trauma using a powerful metaphor, which still sticks with me today:
She described the trauma she endured as a destabilizing force. She said that it felt like watching her home, a cozy historic 3 storey townhouse, instantly crumble to the ground, shattering into millions of pieces. She felt exhausted and physically unstable, feeling the reverberating impact as the structure came crashing down in front of her. It was devastating for her to watch this reliable comforting place she had felt so safe in disappear in a matter of moments, in such a destructive, shocking and painful way.
But after some time while she stood there surrounded by dust and debris, she noticed that while the house was no longer there, she was surrounded by miles and miles of open space.
“I shifted my focus from the ruins to the space around me and realized that on that space, I would be building a new structure, on a foundation that was sturdier, stronger and even more beautiful than what had been there before.”