“I am a more sensitive person, a more compassionate and sympathetic doctor because of my rape experience in med school than I would have ever been without it. But I would give up all the growth in a second if I could have gone through med school without the experience. If I could choose, I would forego all of the spiritual growth and depth which has come my way because of my experiences, and be what I was eleven years ago, an ordinary student, studying hard to be a medical doctor. But I cannot choose.”
In the face of a traumatic event, individuals may experience, along with the inherent negative responses, a number of positive changes, which reveal posttraumatic growth. The idea that difficult life struggles can lead human beings to grow and change, sometimes in radically positive ways, is not recent. The assumption that, at least for some people, an encounter with trauma, which may have elements of great suffering and loss, can lead to highly positive changes in the individual is ancient and widespread. Studies show that there are a range of factors that contribute to the development of posttraumatic growth, such as: distress, personality characteristics, self-disclosure, coping, social support, environmental characteristics, assumptive world, rumination, spirituality and optimism.
How can we measure growth in the face of traumatic experiences?
Changed Perception of Self: Strength and New Possibilities
The phrase that is often used to summarize this area of growth is vulnerable yet stronger. Which means: the victim/survivor suddenly realizes that s/he is more vulnerable than they thought, but much stronger than they ever imagined. Because the traumatic event disrupts initial assumption about self and the world as safe, predictable, etc. changing it to dangerous, unpredictable, the realization that one is quite vulnerable becomes clear and salient. Traumatic events can also leave survivors with increased sense that they have been tested, weighed in the balance, and found to be a people who have survived the worst, suggesting that they are indeed quite strong. As one survivor put it: I’ve been through the absolute worst that I know, and I survived, there’s really nothing in this life that I wouldn’t be able to deal with.
Some people also report an increased awareness of new possibilities in life, which results to developing new interests, new activities, and perhaps embarking on significant new paths in life.
Relating to Others
Adversity, in this case- trauma, can on one hand lead to isolation, loneliness and feeling of hopelessness which can produce the loss, and sometimes destruction of important relationships; however, on the other hand, the consequences of coping with trauma can also include significant changes in human relationships that the individual can experience as highly positive. One of these changes occurs in how the victim of the traumatic event views other human beings. People who have gone through some adversity often report how their experience with loss and tragedy, made them feel a greater connection to other people in general, particularly an increased sense of compassion for other people who suffer.
This increased compassion may lead to survivors developing a sense of commonality with others who have gone through or are going through something difficult, an increased sense that they are not islands, but really “part of the main” of those who suffer. This increased sense of compassion has also raised the question as to whether or not it translates into a greater degree or frequency of altruistic actions, studies suggest that, at least for most people, this may be the case.
Survivors may also develop an increased sense of intimacy, closeness with family and friends, and freedom to be oneself, disclosing even socially undesirable parts of themselves or their experiences. This increased intimacy is sometimes seen as a double-edged sword because you find out who your real friends are and those that stay you get a lot closer to.
Changed Philosophy of Life: Priorities, Appreciation, and Spirituality
A shift in the understanding of what is of most importance is one of the elements of a changed philosophy of life that survivors can experience as Posttraumatic growth. The drive or goal to amass wealth and build empires may become less important than building a close and meaningful relationship with family, for example. The common way people experience this change in priorities is when they begin to see small and simple things like, the happy giggle of a toddler, as much more important than ever before.
People who have experienced this element of posttraumatic growth, develop a greater appreciation for life and for what they have. Although the specifics are different for different people, there’s usually a common theme where survivors attach greater meaning in intrinsically important priorities (e.g. spending time with their children) and less importance in extrinsic priorities (e.g. buying exotic cars or partying).
The most Posttraumatic growth is often found in the realm of existential and, for some people, of spiritual or religious matters. The time frame for when this transformation occurs in the spiritual or existential domain may vary, with some people experiencing changes in this area much sooner in the posttraumatic period than others. The experiences that makes up this change tend to reflect a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life, greater satisfaction, and perhaps clarity with answers given to fundamental existential questions, like- why am I here? What is the meaning of life? What more can I do? How can I find purpose and meaning? For some people, the experience can include deeply meaningful spiritual elements. On the other hand, although people report significant Posttraumatic growth in their understanding and philosophy of life, it is also true that adversity can lead others to lose faith and experience significant existential despair.
What Can Survivors Can Do to Reach Posttraumatic Growth?
Survivors can reach out to a therapist to seek help after the trauma they have experienced. The negative impacts of trauma are able to fester in secrecy, repression, avoidance, and denial. It takes tremendous strength and courage to shine the light on painful traumatic experiences. But labeling what one experienced as trauma and acting to address it can be a good step towards getting the help one needs. Therapy builds on the idea of a return to live feelings. It’s only when people are properly in touch with feelings that they can correct them, thereby addressing the real struggles from their experiences. A therapist can help you overcome intense grief and shame. Seeking help can increase your hope for the future. And it makes it more likely that posttraumatic growth is possible for you!