What is Post-Traumatic Growth?
18 Sep 2017 | Miriam Akhtar
There are not many things we can guarantee in life. But
it is virtually certain that we will all, at some point, have to
face up to adversity.
This adversity might be is a traumatic event, like a bereavement
or the breakdown of a relationship; or it might be dealing with an
ongoing adversity, like bullying.
When trauma strikes it can turn your world upside down and
shatter your trust in everything you believe to be true. But
alongside the suffering something more positive may also be taking
root. Adversity can act as a catalyst for personal
What doesn't kill you really can make you stronger. People
notice 3 types of positive change on the other side of trauma:
change in themselves, their relationships and their philosophy of
And while the changes may be slow in coming they are no less
substantial for it. Trauma doesn't only change you, it can
transform you. There are 5 main ways in which people grow through
1. Greater personal
Dealing with adversity can consume every last ounce of energy
but at the same time it may also be strengthening you. Having gone
through one trying situation can equip you for future difficult
events. You find out what you're really capable of.
Trauma survivors talk about feeling more alive, open and
authentic. They gain a deeper understanding of themselves and feel
more confident and mature in themselves. They're more empathetic
and may turn into a shoulder to lean on for others going through
the dark side of life.
2. Closer, more meaningful
Trauma is just as much a test of our relationships and it's
disappointing to find that some friends aren't there for you in the
way you would have liked. Sometimes it can be because people don't
feel able to face up to what you have gone through or to accept a
change in the dynamic of your relationship with them.
You certainly find out who your true friends are and those
relationships grow stronger and warmer. You may be pleasantly
surprised at unexpected kindnesses, even from strangers and
discover a supportive community online or in self-help groups of
people who've been through similar experiences.
3. A fresh appreciation for life
Life-threatening scenarios such as a diagnosis of serious
illness can stop you from taking life for granted. Suffering a loss
of some kind can also make you grateful for what you still have
Crisis is the wake-up call to remind us of how precious our time
on the planet is and reflect on how to make the best use of that
time. Often this leads to a fresh appreciation, not only of life
itself but also for the people who are precious to us.
4. New priorities and
Trauma acts as a turning point. No surprise then that as life
changes, so do your priorities.
You may want to spend more time on what's important to you,
whether that's with family and friends, helping people in need or
ensuring you get more down time to just 'be'. You may also be
drawn to a new purpose in life that sees you making a fresh
Reflecting on the big questions such as the meaning of life,
what happens when we die and whether there is a God is a normal
consequence of trauma. Developing or deepening a faith is one of
the outcomes of going through the 'long, dark night of the
soul'. This may take the form of prayer and meditation or
finding comfort either in the religion of childhood or a new
Post-traumatic growth is holistic with lesser-known benefits for
the body as well as mind and spirit. A close call can be the prompt
to stop taking your physical health for granted and to handle the
body with greater care.
Investing in health behaviours such as regular exercise and a
green smoothie habit can help your body to surpass previous levels
of physical functioning, which will also have positive consequences
for your mood.
The How of Post-traumatic
It is normal and natural to experience some post-traumatic
stress in the wake of a devastating experience as you try and deal
with what's happened. Symptoms include flashbacks, hyperarousal,
negative moods and avoidance of anything associated with the
It's this struggle with the traumatic experience which can act
as the engine of post-traumatic growth. Trauma shatters our
assumptions about the world as a safe, benevolent and predictable
It is this breakdown which can lead to a break through -
post-traumatic growth happens by engaging with the new painful
reality and the process of rebuilding our internal world shifts the
way we view life and ourselves.
Finding a way to accept that misfortune has happened helps you
rise above the trauma. Prof Stephen Joseph, one of the leading
researchers in the field, uses the metaphor of a broken
vase to explain the ways in which we react to
Imagine life as a lovely porcelain vase that smashes into pieces
when a crisis occurs. If you pick up the fragments and stick them
back together life will look the same but be infinitely more
fragile and vulnerable to breaking down again. This is the process
If on the other hand you take the pieces and create something
new out of them such as a beautiful mosaic, you'll have made
something new and valuable out of the adversity. This is the
process of accommodation: the alchemy which
can transform the disruption and distress into post-traumatic
Making meaning out of the suffering is a key stage in the
journey to post-traumatic growth. Early on this may take the form
of brooding about the causes of the trauma asking 'why me?' or
trying to figure out the crucial elements that sparked the
Over time, however, the rumination can shift to become more
deliberate and constructive, taking stock of life, examining the
self and searching for something positive to take out of the most
negative of life events. This, in turn, can lead to a renewed sense
of purpose in life.
Humans are sense-making creatures. We construct stories in the
search for meaning and to generate a new narrative for when trauma
takes away the picture of how we expected life to be.
Trying to put the experience into words, either to a trusted
person such as a therapist or close friend or by journalling about
it, can be a significant step to processing it and moving
Expressive writing is a therapy developed by
Prof James Pennebaker. It involves writing about the trauma, what
it meant and the feelings it generated in short sessions over 4
consecutive days. Although people may feel upset during the
process, later on they often experience an improvement in
psychological well-being and physical health.
Perhaps the most significant gain from adversity is that it can
open the door to a deeper happiness. The Ancient Greeks called it
Eudaimonia but the modern definition is something akin to the
fulfilment that comes from living a life of meaning.
There may be no going back after adversity but after the endings
come new beginnings. The silver lining to trauma is that it strips
away the superficialities to reveal what's really important to you
and gives you a second chance to build a life that is true to the
#WhatIs Post-traumatic Growth by Miriam Akhtar is published by Watkins.
Find out more here: http://whatisseries.com/whatis-post-traumatic-growth