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Post-Trauma: How to Get Back to ‘Normal’

Heather Lyons, Ph.D.

You’ve probably heard of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Most often associated with prisoners of war or warfighters returning from deployment, PTSD is a mental illness that can affect anyone who has experienced or witnessed any type of traumatic life event. Surviving a traumatic event like a horrific crime, serious injury, the death of a family member, a major life crisis, or a natural disaster itself takes an incredible amount of strength and resilience. Bouncing back after a traumatic experience is an even greater accomplishment.

So, is it even possible to bounce forward? To not only come to terms with a traumatic life event or develop coping mechanisms to deal with it but experience personal growth afterward? Can a traumatic event truly affect a positive psychological change in the survivors’ perspectives and relationships? Some psychologists believe that’s precisely what can happen.

The Theory of Post-Traumatic Growth

In the mid-1990s University of North Carolina psychologists Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D., and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D., offered empirical evidence that “people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive personal growth afterward.” Calhoun and Tedeschi dubbed this idea of growth after trauma post-traumatic growth or PTG.

life after trauma

“People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have, and a better understanding of how to live life,” says Tedeschi. However, psychologists are careful to clarify in no way are they interpreting that trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder are good things in any way. Calhoun and Tedeschi also explain that post-traumatic growth is not a direct result of a traumatic event, but rather a result of the struggle to recover psychologically.

Post-traumatic growth is different from resilience. Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly, or spring back into a previous state. Post-traumatic growth is contingent on going through post-traumatic stress—and coming out the other side in a positive way.

The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory

To evaluate the level of positive change and post-traumatic growth in the mental health of trauma survivors, Calhoun and Tedeschi created the post-traumatic growth inventory (PTGI). The test measures positive change in the following areas:

  • Appreciation of life,
  • Relationships with others,
  • New possibilities in life,
  • Personal strength, and
  • Spirituality.

One source has classified these positive outcomes of post-traumatic stress as significant changes in three areas: relationships, self-esteem, and meaning. This source also estimates that 90% of trauma survivors report at least one of these PTG benefits.

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Benefits of Posttraumatic Growth

The conceptual foundation of post-traumatic growth is that people who survive major life crises or trauma will see life differently after processing their experience. Some things, people, or concepts that seemed important before the traumatic event will have less significance, while others will appear much more valuable.

For example, someone emerging from the struggle of post-traumatic stress may embrace their friends and family members as sources of social support more than before. They may feel more connected to specific people or more committed to certain relationships. They also might feel a higher level of empathy and altruism toward others who have suffered or are currently suffering. Relationships with social workers or therapists, in addition to family members or spiritual leaders, can play a significant role in the successful post-traumatic growth of trauma survivors.

Other significant changes involve how a person feels about themselves. Surviving trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder requires a demonstration of strength that some people might not have realized they had. Afterward, they might feel better equipped to deal with life’s challenges and have a higher level of confidence and self-esteem. Survivors could embrace their spirituality or religion, even develop a more keen appreciation for life itself.

Another benefit of PTG is the sense that new opportunities exist for the survivor. They may even develop an outlook of optimism for the future, believing that they can achieve great things in their lives.

If these concepts sound vaguely familiar, it’s because the benefits of PTG closely align with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s theory is that human beings are motivated by five hierarchical levels of needs, the most basic being physiological needs like food and shelter, followed by safety and personal security. The highest three levels are love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization, which are similar to the positive psychological changes experienced through PTG.

Can you experience post-traumatic growth?

Tedeschi found that certain people are more likely to experience PTG than others. Women report more growth according to the PTGI scale than men, and adults are more likely than children or adolescents to be open to this type of growth. Tedeschi also discovered two traits that appear to make a person more likely to experience PTG: openness to experience and extraversion. “That’s because people who are more open are more likely to reconsider their belief systems,” says Tedeschi, “and extroverts are more likely to be more active in response to trauma and seek out connections with others.”

If you have survived a traumatic experience, a good therapist or mental health clinician can complement talk therapy with medication to help you manage your PTSD symptoms. Working with the right mental health professional can help you not only bounce back but perhaps even bounce forward through post-traumatic growth.

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