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Post-traumatic growth

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger … or so the saying goes. Yet for many people, hearing this phrase can make them feel angry or patronised as their traumatic event left them feeling weaker, somehow less than they were and believing that life has changed for the worse.

The media is full of stories and examples of “permanently damaged” lives. A popular, but incorrect view, is that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder cannot be fully “cured” and that individuals can only learn coping strategies to deal with it.

Many people are familiar with the damaging impact of psychological trauma – maybe they’ve seen or read about people experiencing flashbacks, personality changes, ongoing fear and nightmares. But Post Traumatic Growth is not something that is often talked about.

Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) describes the range of positive changes experienced by people as a result of their struggle with a severe life challenge or a traumatic event. PTG does not mean the absence of suffering or the complete disappearance of distress so it’s not about having no reaction or a minimal reaction to an event. In fact, the more severe the initial reaction is the more there may be potential for Post Traumatic Growth.

Contrary to media stereotypes, PTG is far more common than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with estimates of between 30 to 70% of survivors experiencing at least one aspect of PTG. However, Richard Tedeschi, a prominent researcher in the field, cautions that not everyone achieves PTG “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.”

There is nothing positive about experiencing a traumatic event. It can feel as though life, as it was, has been totally smashed up. All the assumptions we make about ourselves and the world are suddenly questioned. However, it is the rebuilding of life after the event that offers the opportunity for new strength and growth.

PTG is generally seen in 5 areas of life:

  • Relating to others

Many people report that their close personal relationships have improved. They are able to be more open and emotionally intimate with loved ones. Whereas a common feature of the initial Traumatic Stress reaction is a withdrawal from others and a gradual disconnection from relationships, PTG leads to stronger connections with those who really matter.

There is also more empathy and compassion towards other people who are experiencing difficulties.

  • New possibilities

In the early days and weeks after a traumatic event, individuals may avoid situations and have reduced tolerance of change and challenges. As they makes sense of what happened, many completely reassess their life and find themselves moving in new directions or having a greater sense of purpose. This can mean expecting more from life and breaking free from situations that are less than fulfilling.

  • Personal strength

It’s ironic that people who felt vulnerable or helpless during the traumatic event or due to their initial reaction to it emerge from their struggle feeling significantly stronger. There may be the belief that “if I can get through that I can get through anything.” Sometimes it’s only when we really test our limits that we accept our true strength.

  • Spiritual (life beliefs) change

Whereas the aftermath of a traumatic event often leads to a loss of faith and shattering of sustaining beliefs, PTG can go on to leave people feeling more spiritually connected or positively changing their philosophical attitude and beliefs about life.

  • A deeper appreciation of life

When life has been in chaos or at risk of ending, even much later, the world can still feel dangerous and uncertain, and individuals may have a negative or cynical outlook. However, as they achieve recovery and PTG, there is often a deep appreciation for life. Even small things can bring pleasure – the natural world, the smell of coffee, birdsong, a child’s smile. There can be a real shift in perspective around what is important.

For more informative resources on trauma, please see the following link.

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