Post-Traumatic Growth: When There’s Hope After Hardship
While we all try to embrace what life throws at us, the reality is that at some point in life, you may come face to face with a traumatic event. Experiences like a serious illness, loss of a loved one or an experience with violence. This in turn can result in post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD as it’s more commonly known. In fact, according to the 2020 Youth wellbeing prevalence survey, 1.5% of young people have PTSD while 3.4% have complex PTSD. But have you ever heard of post-traumatic growth?
PTG is a term people are less likely to have heard of. First coined in the 90s by researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, it’s defined as a “positive psychological change in the wake of struggling with highly challenging life circumstances.” The validity of the concept continues to be explored and debated by psychologists today, including Dr Denise O’Dwyer, principal psychologist, and author of ‘Psychology with a Sparkle’ (@drdee_x), who notes that it “was an important addition to the trauma research base, which had previously been restricted to post-traumatic stress only.” So yes, while a trauma can invoke a debilitating response, in some cases it can be a catalyst for positive changes and may even spark growth and resilience.
It’s important to recognise that not everyone who experiences trauma will receive PTG and that’s okay, but as Dr O’Dwyer explains, this should be similarly respected. “Growth is an individual process rather than a generic outcome, and there is no one way or definition of what the process involves since it’s unique to each individual,” she adds. “So many variables impact the growth trajectory of each person, including the frequency, duration, intensity and extent of their trauma, the personality characteristics of the individual, lifestyle and environmental factors.” However, there are certain factors in your control that could make you more likely to experience PTG along the way.
First of all, one of the strongest predictors of PTG is finding yourself a solid support network and people you can rely on for advice and guidance. This is vital to healing and growing after adversity. Whether it’s your friends, family members, coworkers, health professionals or even pets, leaning on your loved ones is one of the best ways to help you feel less alone. While health professionals can help you to process trauma, and even transfer negative thoughts into positive ones, which in turn can eventually change your behaviour.
Secondly, it’s important to celebrate your new strengths and personal growth. Adversity has a way of acquainting us with strengths we might never have discovered. Plus, you now have the knowledge that you can handle difficult things and come through the other side, proving you are stronger than you may have thought you initially were. Following on from that, try to be open to new opportunities.
For example, certain challenges you have faced may have led to meeting new people or discovering a new purpose, leaving you with a renewed perception of the world. Maybe you’ll feel inclined to volunteer or give back to a charity that supports others who went through something similar you did. It’s opportunities like this that could prove to be the perfect catalyst for growth.
Remember to also take time to sit and process your emotions. Don’t put pressure on yourself to move on from your trauma straight away. “As humans, we’re wired for growth and evolution, and frustration may occur if that growth is not happening at a quick enough pace,” Dr O’Dwyer tells me.
“We must remember however, that it takes time, vulnerability, self-compassion, and enormous amounts of courage to examine our trauma-related histories, to dig deep into our core beliefs about ourselves, other people and the world, and to re-wire our brains and nervous system so that we no longer react to situations and stimuli in habitual, ineffective ways.”
So, are some people more likely to experience PTG than others? “It all comes down to the variability of people,” begins Dr O’Dwyer. “What they have encountered throughout their lives, the environments they grew up in and are currently exposed to, and their personality with regard to optimism levels and resilience.”
According to Tedeschi, two traits in particular might make people more likely to experience PTG. These are openness to experience and extraversion. However, age can also be a factor and as Dr O’Dwyer points out, “Children under 8 are less likely to have the cognitive capacity to experience PTG, while those in late adolescence and early adulthood—who may already be trying to determine their world view—are more open to the type of change that such growth reflects.”
Finally, when it comes to seeking help, Dr O’Dwyer believes the earlier the better. “That might start with a good friend, with whom we feel a safe connection in sharing our vulnerability. In terms of professional support, the first port of call is your GP, and they can then make a referral on your behalf. While online databases for sourcing support, include The Psychological Society of Ireland, The Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, and The International Association of Healthcare Practitioners.”
As far as those who are looking to move past a bad experience but are struggling to do so goes, Dr O’Dwyer suggests finding a good therapist and someone who deals specifically with trauma. “Also, be patient with yourself, and practice self-compassion whilst you are healing and coming to terms with the effects of trauma. Know that recovery is generally not linear, so try not to get frustrated if you experience setbacks or revert to old, familiar patterns whilst working through trauma-related reactions.”
Remember that PTG isn’t a concept that’s trying to push away your feelings, especially if you’re not ready to move forward. With so much toxic positivity in society, it’s important not to put pressure on yourself to learn or grow from your trauma, because it won’t always be possible. But in some cases, PTG can offer hope after hardship.
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of STELLAR magazine.