It might seem unlikely, or impossible even, but sometimes life’s toughest curve balls—hurdles, injustices, and knock-downs—can lead to remarkable positive transformation. Read on to learn about post-traumatic growth (PTG).
More and more research indicates that, in the wake of life’s crises, there is potential for positive change. Researchers Calhoun and Tedeschi coined the term post-traumatic growth (PTG) and have spent the past two decades exploring how major stressors—from tsunamis to illness, assaults to bereavement—can serve as catalysts for growth.
After a trauma, sometimes it is all we can do to get out of bed or put one foot in front of the next. But another possible consequence is to draw strength and flourish. For insight into PTG, I turned to clinical psychologist Dr. Anne Wagner, and psychotherapist Jean Tsai.
PTG, Wagner explains, “is a positive psychological shift following a traumatic experience and includes improved relationships, spiritual change, and appreciation of life.” Such growth, says Tsai, can also lead to “flexibility in thinking and behaviour, self-awareness and self-reflection, and compassion for oneself and others.”
Sometimes, she adds, PTG can take the shape of “deepening of values and commitments” and, ultimately, an improved quality of life. Tsai adds, quoting a mentor, “Trauma automatically makes people root deeper.”
Conversely, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says Tsai, can invite “hypervigilance or impulsive, risky behaviours, overly rigid or lax boundaries, and difficulty being present.” These symptoms, she explains, are manifestations of our built-in fight, flight, or freeze reactions in the presence of a perceived or real threat. She says, “While PTSD symptoms are driven by our innate survival responses, they can also erode our ability to tolerate distress over time.”
In contrast, Tsai notes, “PTG widens our bandwidth and allows us to make choices that are in greater alignment with our preferred way of being. This can look like choosing to face our fears head-on, deepened connections with self and others, and acting with intentionality rather than on impulse.”
It is important to note, points out Wagner, “PTG can occur for folks with and without PTSD, as one does not mean the presence or absence of the other.”
I asked Wagner, who emphasizes that everyone has the ability to grow, change, and learn after a traumatic event, how she helps her clients move toward PTG. “I work with my clients to understand and make meaning of the traumatic experience,” says Wagner. “This meaning-making allows for growth to occur naturally—it places the experience in context and allows the client to generate for themselves how they can now live best.”
“It’s important not to jump to encouraging growth,” reminds Wagner, “which can inadvertently minimize the experience for those struggling after a trauma. Rather, helping unravel where the client might be stuck in that meaning-making then clears the way for growth to occur, and the ability to ask the question, ‘Is it possible that any good could have come from the situation, or this process of healing after the trauma?’”
There are conditions that can nurture PTG. “Social support, spaces where people feel a sense of safety and belonging, and having basic needs like food and shelter met,” says Tsai, “help people give it their best shot at growth after trauma.”
I also asked Wagner and Tsai, “What does resilience mean to you?”
Wagner: “Resilience means adapting and finding ways to survive and grow.”
Tsai: “Resilience is the ability to move forward in the face of adversity—through replenishing our body, mind, and spirit. Resilience is to keep going.”
In addition to checking in with a psychologist or psychotherapist, Dr. Anne Wagner and Jean Tsai offered a few more suggestions for alive readers who may have experienced trauma(s).
Wagner: “Seek out support from others who will be nonjudgmental and not try to rush to offer solutions or platitudes.”
Tsai: “One characteristic of trauma is a sense of ‘stuckness’ or feeling trapped, but every little bit in the bucket of change helps, however seemingly small. Just like building a muscle, it takes time for new neuropathways to form, and as Socrates figured out long ago, ‘The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.’ Even if no immediate benefit is apparent, your efforts at creating change will count in the long run.”
I asked Tsai and Wagner about what PTG can teach or offer everyone, whether or not they’ve experienced a traumatic life event. Wagner stresses intentionality: “Paying attention to how we want to live our lives, and living the version we want of our lives now.”
And Tsai highlights trusting our feelings: “There is always good reason for why we feel, think, and behave the way we do, without exception—these have served us in difficult times. From this recognition, we can be freer to forge new pathways forward, armed with self-compassion, deepened self-knowledge, and fierce commitment to our own growth and healing.”