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What is Post-Traumatic Growth?

In 2006 in his book, The happiness hypothesis: Putting ancient wisdom and philosophy to the test of modern science. (Arrow Books: London), the author and researcher J. Haidt quoted part of aphorism number 8 from the "Maxims and Arrows" section of Friedrich Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols (1888) -

"What does not kill me makes me stronger."

(In German: Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker)

In the last two decades positive psychology has promoted the adversity hypothesis which states that people require adversity, trauma and setbacks in order to grow, find fulfillment, develop as a person and find their inner strength. Adversity can and does build resilience.

Wait a minute. Aren't there reams of literature over the past 50 years that has documented the negative effects that stress and trauma have on humans?

Depression, anxiety, heart disease and post-traumatic stress disorder all result from trauma and stress, however more recent literature is beginning to address the notion that stress and trauma can actually be good for people (Haidt, 2006). Interesting.

So what is the difference between Post-Traumatic Stress and Post-Traumatic Growth? Well for starters, according to Hadit, 2006, Post-Traumatic Growth is a direct contrast to post-traumatic stress disorder where individuals find no benefit from their trauma only pain and anxiety.

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a theory that explains this kind of transformation following trauma. It was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, in the mid-1990s, and holds that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward.

The literature has documented Post-Traumatic Growth in many diverse areas of trauma and stress, including illness, bereavement, sexual assault, military combat and terrorist attacks (Park & Helgeson, 2006). And the literature concerning post-traumatic growth has recently seen a surge of research interest (Park & Helgeson, 2006), indeed Helgeson, Reynolds & Tomich, (2006) noted that of the 77 articles that they reviewed for their meta analysis, 49 (or 63%) were published since 2000.

Prior to this psychology had tended to view stress and trauma through a negative lens with particular emphasis on post traumatic stress disorder and the negative health implications associated with stressors. This focus was heavily impacted by trauma theories of Freud.

There had been some literature that concentrated on resilience, or how individuals bounce back after a trauma, but it is only recently that the literature is beginning to focus on the benefits of experiencing trauma (Haidt 2006).

Post-Traumatic Growth - is discussed in the literature under a number of difference titles, for example “benefit finding,” “post-traumatic growth,” and “stress-related growth.” (Park & Helgeson, 2006). When I found this research I have to admit, I was elated. As a person who came from addicted and alcoholic parents, early sexual abuse, poverty, and generations of dysfunction, I was so happy that researchers were verifying what I knew to be true in my heart. Trauma can serve as a motivator in building resilience, AND it can be used to enhance depression, anxiety and physical illnesses. Trauma is a BOTH/AND, not an EITHER/OR.

What Does Post-Traumatic Growth Actually Refer to?

Post-Traumatic Growth has been researched in a hugely diverse set of traumatic events from divorce and death to natural disasters and terrorist attacks (Haidt, 2006). The literature on Post-Traumatic Growth shows that even though the causes of Post-Traumatic Growth are vast, the benefits reported fall into three categories:

1. Individuals's report feeling stronger and discovering new abilities and strengths; these new strengths and resilient abilities alter a person's self concept and building their confidence to face new challenges, e.g. If I can survive this I can survive anything;

2. Individuals report that relationships were strengthened, which is reflected in how people often speak of “finding out who their true friends are” after they have experienced a trauma; and,

3. People's priorities and philosophies concerning the present day and other people are altered, e.g. living for the moment and prioritizing your loved ones (Haidt, 2006 and Joseph & Linley, 2005). They realize that connections, especially happy ones, make you healthier in the long run.

Other studies have not reported all three categories, for example Affleck, Tennen, Croog & Levine, (1987) found that heart attack victims only report two benefits; greater self insight and positively altered values and priorities.

Consider a story shared by Richard G. Tedeschi in his article Growth After Trauma in the Harvard Business Review:

. . .a nonprofit executive who had been fired from two previous positions over sexual harassment allegations. One night, as he and his wife were driving on the interstate, they were involved in a horrific crash, plowing into a stopped vehicle that didn’t have its lights on. His wife’s injuries were minor, but he was left comatose for a month and needed a year of rehabilitation to walk and talk again. His new narrative went something like this: “Many would think it was this accident that put my life in jeopardy. But I was already in great danger. I was causing pain to others, ruining my career, and heading for a life without my wife or children. The accident forced me to stop, created time for reflection, and showed me what love really is.”

I also have a friend who was extremely successful, driven and a force to be reckoned with, but not all that nice to his wife, and certainly took his health for granted as well. He did not appreciate how much he had, instead he was focused on 'just a little more'.

Then he had an aneurysm and brain bleed that nearly took his life. The doctors felt he wasn't going to make it and he spent four months in the hospital. He had to learn to speak, walk, eat everything again. This doesn't sound like a good experience, but to him it was the best thing that ever happened. He now realizes that the life that was given back to him is precious, and he now appreciates every day. He is devoted to treating his wife lovingly and building their 'almost broken' relationship into something strong and lasting. He believes that his trauma actually saved his life. His story is another perfect example of post traumatic growth.

We have a choice as to the narrative around the trauma in our life. Are you going to allow you trauma to stress and disable you emotionally and physically, or are you going to choose to allow the 'sh*t' that's happened to you become fertilizer for your growth?

Yes, you really do have a choice.

Personality expert Dawn Billings is the founder of a website dedicated to providing resources to help strengthen and heal relationships. Dawn is the creator of the comprehensive ONLINE relationship programs called Relationship Help At Home, and is the Executive Director of the Relationship Help Resort in Arizona where she hosts private couple's retreats and marriage intensives to help people restore the love and connection in their marriages.

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