Post-Traumatic Growth

What is Post-Traumatic Growth?

The relationship between suffering and well-being is quite complex, and the two sometimes go hand in hand. Posttraumatic growth represents the positive changes that many trauma survivors experience as a result of their struggle with the distress of their traumatic experience. Following a traumatic event that forces an individual to grapple with significant challenges to their core beliefs about the world, they may experience positive changes including greater appreciation of life, the identification of new possibilities for their future, warmer and more intimate relationships, increased perceptions of personal strength, and deepening spirituality. Posttraumatic growth is a common outcome of the struggle with trauma, and growth has been observed in a wide range of populations.Ā 

Domains of Posttraumatic Growth

Appreciation of Life

Trauma may lead people to experience greater appreciation of life as well as changes in their priorities. The Appreciation of Life domain of growth may include the development of more gratitude for and value placed on life in general as well as individual aspects of oneā€™s life. Small experiences may take on special significance for the trauma survivor. Importantly, the trauma survivor experiences their new appreciation as a substantial shift in mindset. They may also make changes in the way they prioritize aspects of their life. Typical changes in priorities include recognizing the value of things they may have previously taken for granted and taking time for the little things in life.

New Possibilities

Trauma survivors may also experience thoughts about New Possibilities and opportunities in their lives. Some people find that the struggle with trauma leads them to discover a new hobby, purpose, or career path. They may adopt a survivorā€™s mission, such as motivation to help others experiencing similar trauma or engage in advocacy or educational efforts to raise awareness or prevent future occurrences of the type of trauma they confronted.Ā 

Relating to Others

Many trauma survivors report that they experience a heightened sense of Relating to Others. They find that their personal relationships grow warmer and more intimate. Improved relationships may come from recognizing the value in relationships with people who supported the them in the aftermath of their crisis, and the struggle to cope may help the trauma survivor to develop greater compassion for others who are suffering, increasing their level of empathy.

Personal Strength

Trauma survivors may report a greater sense of Personal Strength, including seeing things that were previously a big deal as trivial or not worth worrying about. Paradoxically, the increased sense of strength may be accompanied by a greater sense of vulnerability. In other words, people become more likely to recognize that bad things can happen to them while at the same time believing that they have the resources and abilities to cope.

Spiritual Change

Although in the immediate aftermath of their traumatic experience spirituality and religiosity may wane, many survivors of trauma report positive Spiritual Change as a result of their experience. For instance, they may believe that God or a higher power got them through their experience. This may or may not lead to becoming more religious. Whether or not they believe in God or a higher power, trauma survivors may engage to a greater degree with existential questions about life and its meaning.Ā 

Who experiences posttraumatic growth?

Trauma survivors typically do not view themselves as engaging in a quest to find benefits from their pain. Rather, they are simply trying to survive or, in some cases, decide if surviving is even worth it. They are often surprised that growth has occurred because it was never their goal or expectation. Yet, research has shown that reports of growth after trauma are more common than reports of psychiatric disorders.Ā 

Posttraumatic growth has been observed among parents with critically or terminally ill children or children with acute health crises; people with a wide range of health concerns including coronary health issues, cancer, stroke, HIV, and chronic illnesses; survivors of natural and man-made disasters, including earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis; victims of crime, including victims of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, sexual abuse, and childhood physical or sexual abuse; people in professions where exposure to danger or to the trauma of others is high, such as healthcare professionals, combat veterans, and first responders, survivors of accidents, and people bereaved by the death of a loved one.Ā 

How does growth happen?

Although responses to trauma vary (and not all people will experience growth after a traumatic experience), the development of posttraumatic growth follows a general pattern involving an extreme event, intrusive rumination, and deliberate rumination.

Extreme Event

A major life crisis disrupts the trauma survivorā€™s understanding of why and how things happen in the world or their beliefs about the meaning and purpose of life.Ā 

Intrusive Rumination

The trauma survivor copes with high levels of distress and experience intrusive and unwelcome thoughts about its causes and consequences.

Deliberate Rumination

The trauma survivor thinks of the event as a turning point in their life and begins to think about its meaning and significance.

Posttraumatic Growth and Posttraumatic Stress

The potential for trauma to lead to growth does not mean that trauma is a desirable experience. Trauma survivors often experience substantial distress including negative emotions like anxiety, fear, sadness, depression, and anger, psychological responses like denial or numbness, intrusive and distressing thoughts and memories of the experience, and physical reactions like fatigue, muscle soreness, gastrointestinal issues, and even psychiatric problems. People who survive trauma are often grateful to have grown from it, but the trauma itself remains a source of pain. Despite their experience of personal growth, most people would still prefer to have avoided the experience.

Posttraumatic growth is not the opposite or absence of posttraumatic stress. In fact, research suggests that growth may depend on the experience of high levels of distress. It is the distress of the experience that prompts cognitive efforts to make sense of what has happened and eventually to consider the meaning and significance of their experience, ultimately leading to positive changes in their lives. Importantly, even when these positive changes occur, the distress caused by their experience may continue.

What factors contribute to Posttraumatic Growth?

Several individual factors have been associated with posttraumatic growth. For example, women are more likely to report experiencing growth after a highly stressful experience. People who are more optimistic or who use coping mechanisms like acceptance or intentional reappraisals of their experience are also more likely to experience posttraumatic growth. Seeking and receiving social support is an important contributing factor in posttraumatic growth. And Big Five personality traits Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness are all associated with greater growth.

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