Along your healing journey, you may notice some positive change come from what you’ve been through. This is known as post-traumatic growth.
When you’re in the throes of trauma, or directly after it, it may not feel possible to find deeper meaning in the experience. Yet, as humans, we possess an innate ability to adapt.
For some, post-traumatic growth (PTG) can mean increased personal strength or a greater appreciation for life. It could mean spiritual growth or altered belief systems. For others, it could be the motivation to take action to help others in their community.
Everyone processes trauma in their own way, and it’s often a long journey toward healing. Eventually, you might end up finding growth in areas you least expect it.
Growth after trauma is part of your natural human capacity to make meaning, heal, and learn from hardship, says Ginelle Krummey, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Marshall, North Carolina.
The PTG theory was developed in the 1990s by Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD. The theory states that following adversity or crisis, people often see positive growth. This could be in their relationships, worldview, or other personal areas.
Post-traumatic growth is the new awareness, insight, and perspective that emerges after a crisis, says Dr. Debi Silber, a psychologist in Huntington Station, New York.
“The crisis can be the death of a loved one, disease, natural disaster, or devastation of some kind like abuse or betrayal,” she explains. “It results from a ‘psychological earthquake’ where your world is now divided between before it happened, and after it happened. It’s a defining moment that changes life as you’ve known it.”
After experiencing trauma, it’s expected to experience challenges in your personal life, relationships, and work. How long this lasts is different for everybody, and there’s no “right” timeline for processing trauma.
At some point, you might begin to notice new growth that wasn’t there before the trauma happened.
According to Tedeschi and Calhoun’s historical 1996 study, key signs that you’re experiencing PTG include:
- A greater appreciation of life: appreciating the value of life, or appreciating each day in a way you didn’t before
- Improved relationships with others: you might develop a sense of closeness with others, increased compassion, or the knowledge that you can count on others in times of crisis
- New possibilities: such as developing new interests, a new life path, or a willingness to change things that need changing
- Personal strength: the knowledge that you can handle difficult things, that you’re stronger than you thought, or an increased sense of self-reliance
- Spiritual change: A deeper understanding of spirituality, or stronger faith than before
You might notice more clarity or meaning surrounding the trauma events and the sense of moving forward in your life despite hardships. You might even feel able to integrate the event or events as a contributor to your identity.
We all work at our own pace. If you haven’t seen signs of this on your healing journey, that’s OK. It may come later on.
Post-traumatic growth is encouraged by your willingness to acknowledge what happened to you was traumatic, which may be harder than it sounds.
“Traumas almost always include the removal of personal power or agency, and taking back choice is a huge part of recovering from trauma,” says Krummey. “Restoration of a sense of safety and security with the world, with other people, and/or with yourself is another factor that leads to PTG.”
There are many ways that you can go about this — so consider leaning into what feels right for you.
“One of the biggest factors encouraging post-traumatic growth is being able to emotionally process grief and other feelings related to the traumatic event,” says Derwin K.K. Nunes III, a certified substance abuse counselor on the big island of Hawaii.
“Working with a therapist can be a big part of this,” he explains. “Therapy can help a person who has experienced trauma cope with PTSD symptoms, anxiety, or depression, which is key to experiencing growth after a traumatic event.”
You may find it useful to use Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource to find a therapist you resonate with.
Learning about trauma
The impact of trauma is complex, from how it affects your brain and body, to your emotions and how it impacts your relationships.
You may find it helpful to keep educating yourself on the topic. With each new resource, you could unearth another layer of awareness to help you navigate your own trauma recovery process.
Research shows that socializing with your loved ones and others who have been through similar experiences can help accelerate PTG.
You may find it helpful to join a support group with other trauma survivors who “get” what you’re going through.
The pandemic could be considered
Yet, for some, post-traumatic growth is already taking effect. While this phenomenon is still in the early stages of being studied, we’re likely to keep hearing more on this topic as researchers search for a silver lining.
“Some people are mourning what they no longer have and what they can’t do, while others have used the experience to develop new skills, friendships, and go within to access deeper and more enriching aspects of life,” says Silber.
But if you haven’t reached a place of growth after trauma, that’s OK. It’s a process that takes time, and we each move at our own pace.
Trauma can be life-altering. While commonly associated with painful outcomes, such as PTSD, there may be benefits as well, like the lesser-known post-traumatic growth.
It may take some time to get there, and you don’t have to go through this alone. Consider working with a therapist who specializes in trauma and joining a support group.
Education can help as well. Some useful books may include:
- “Trauma & Recovery” by Judith Lewis Herman, MD
- “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk, MD
- “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing” by Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, and Oprah Winfrey
What happened to you wasn’t your fault and, in time, your trauma may catalyze something else entirely: an epic transformation.