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What is Posttraumatic Growth?

Most people have heard of posttraumatic stress. Yet, beyond the medical community, few are aware of the evidence of posttraumatic growth. The wisdom contained in this idea is ancient: The writings of the ancient Greeks, Hebrews, early Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims have promised the possibility of finding blessings in bad breaks. Often they urged the necessity of overcoming hardships in order for the savior to return with the magic potion that would heal themselves and their people: Moses had to ascend the mountain, Jesus sacrificed himself, the Buddha left his palace.

But what is new is that a precise science of posttraumatic growth is emerging to discover what exactly it is that helps us transform adversities for a greater good in our own life and to impact the world. We're not just talking about the big capital T Traumas such as a life-threatening illness or abuse, but also about everyday traumas that pull the rug out from under us, such as a divorce, losing a loved one, or a surgery. Trauma lies in the heart of the beholder. We never know what etches itself indelibly into our hearts.

According to psychologist Richard Tedeschi, posttraumatic growth’s leading researcher, as many as ninety percent of survivors report at least one aspect of posttraumatic growth, such as a renewed appreciation for life or a deeper connection to their heart’s purpose. This does not happen immediately or easily, and rarely by itself. We need to actively work towards positive change, and we need the right tools and support in order to transform a bad break into a breakthrough.

The groundbreaking science is expanding and adding fresh insights. Psychologist Stephen Joseph is not the only one to regard it as “one of the most exciting of all the recent advances in clinical psychology, because it promises to radically alter our ideas about trauma—especially the notion that trauma inevitably leads to a damaged and dysfunctional life.”

Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte didn’t invent a fancy theory and then try to prove it with studies; it was the other way around. They were consulting with trauma survivors, initially bereaved parents, then people who had lost the loves of their lives or were severely injured, cancer survivors, veterans, and prisoners. Again and again, people shared a perplexing insight: While they were not happy about what had happened to them, they felt they had learned valuable lessons from the experience and these lessons eventually changed their lives for the better. They became better parents, better partners, and more compassionate friends; they discovered a new purpose in life.

Dr. Richard Tedeschi at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte ©Michaela Haas

Dr. Richard Tedeschi at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte

©Michaela Haas

Five main areas of growth

Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun have found that their clients report growth in five main areas: personal strength, deeper relationships with others, new perspectives on life, appreciation of life, and spirituality. “In brief, people’s sense of themselves, their relationships with others and their philosophy of life changes,” Tedeschi says. “Perhaps one of the most common growth experiences triggered by a major stressor is an increased appreciation of life.”

Depending on the circumstances, Tedeschi estimates that as many as thirty to seventy—in some instances even up to ninety—percent of survivors generally experience at least one aspect of posttraumatic growth.

Contrary to popular opinion, experiencing growth after trauma is far more common than PTSD. It is vital to look closely: While most people will suffer from posttraumatic stress in the aftermath of trauma, few will develop full-blown PTSD, and even of those, most will heal with therapy and time. “But it is important to make clear that not everybody experiences growth, and we are not implying that traumatic events are a good thing,” Richard Tedeschi stresses. “They are not. In the wake of trauma, people become more aware of the futility in life and that unsettles some while it focuses others. This is the paradox of growth: people become more vulnerable, yet stronger.”

It is crucial to distinguish between the event and the outcome. There is nothing positive about trauma itself; we wouldn’t choose it, then or now. There is nothing beneficial about being captured in Iraq or being diagnosed with an aneurysm. Nevertheless, we might be able to reap something beneficial out of the sorrow.

The good only comes from what we decide to do with it—from our struggle that unveils what needs to change in us and in our society, from honing our ability to make meaning out of events that seem senseless, from not trying to rebuild an exact replica of what was lost, but to engineer a stronger, sturdier foundation for our life.

A crisis is not a cul-de-sac, but rather a watershed moment. What we do next matters: advance or retreat, take a turn south or north, run or hide, crawl or fly. We can avert our eyes or dig deeper, try harder or grow softer, close down or break open.

The fundamental question is not whether we encounter suffering—because we all do. “It is how we work with suffering so that it leads to awakening the heart and going beyond the habitual views and actions that perpetuate suffering,” Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says. “How do we actually use suffering so that it transforms our being and that of those with who we come in contact? How can we stop running from pain and reacting against it in ways that destroy us as well as others?”

As Maya Angelou says, “Nothing will work unless you do.”

Image credit: "Blue Lotus Water Garden (05)" by Stephen Edmonds is licensed under CC BY 2.0