What Doesn't Kill Us: Post-traumatic Growth

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Stacey Kramer's poignant talk "The Best Gift I Ever Survived" in which she describes her experiences with a brain tumor provides a testimony to one of the most important topics in modern clinical psychology -- post-traumatic growth.

Post-traumatic growth refers to how adversity can often be a springboard to a new and more meaningful life in which people re-evaluate their priorities, deepen their relationships, and find new understandings of who they are. Post-traumatic growth is not simply about coping; it refers to changes that cut to the very core of our way of being in the world. Post-traumatic growth has to do with the way we greet the day as we wake in the morning. The way we brush our teeth and put on our shoes -- it reflects our attitude about life itself and our place in the world.

Scientific studies have shown that post-traumatic growth is common in survivors not only of life-threatening illnesses but also other various traumatic events, including disasters, accidents, and violence. Typically 30-70 percent of survivors say that they have experienced positive changes of one form or another.

Post-traumatic growth is an important topic because it is changing how we think about trauma and how to treat it. It challenges the traditional psychiatric view of trauma and moves us away from only looking at its destructive effects to understand that it is in the struggle with suffering that growth may arise.

Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living. -- Stephen Joseph

Post-traumatic growth does not necessarily mean that the person will be entirely free of the memories of what has happened to them, the grief they experience or other forms of distress but that they live their lives more meaningfully in the light of what happened. We can't wipe away our history and maybe we should not want to; as Stacey Kramer says, she would not change her experience as it altered her life.

Research is now untangling a seemingly intricate dance between post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic growth. This can be illustrated through the story of the shattered vase. Imagine that one day you accidentally knock a treasured vase off its perch. It smashes into tiny pieces. What do you do? Do you try to put the vase back together as it was? Or do you pick up the beautiful colored pieces and use them to make something new - such as a colorful mosaic? When adversity strikes, people often feel that at least some part of them -- be it their views of the world, their sense of themselves, their relationships -- has been smashed. Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.

We can learn to cultivate growth in ourselves. The key to growth is the way we talk to ourselves. Understanding the significance of our experiences in ways that construct meaning, in which we view ourselves as survivors and even thrivers and that establish hopefulness in us, will lead us towards growth.

As growth takes root we need to notice it. We can ask ourselves questions:

Are there ways in which my relationships with family and friends have been strengthened and deepened in intimacy?

Are they ways in which I have found a different perspective on life with new opportunities?

Are there things I did to survive what happened that showed me strengths within myself that I didn't know I had?

Are there ways in which I have found a greater understanding of life and how to live it?

Are there ways in which I find myself being more grateful for what I have and for those around me?

As you notice growth taking root you can nurture it. Regularly ask yourself these questions and find ways to enact the changes you notice, even in the smallest ways. Then your growth will flourish.

And one other helpful thing that the research points to is support from family and friends. Stacey Kramer's talk is to be welcomed for the hope it offers but there are three notes of caution, particularly for family and friends to remember. First, we ought not to burden each other with the expectation of post-traumatic growth. Second, the path to growth is not always smooth, nor short. The psychological journey following trauma can be a long and difficult one. Third, there is no promise of growth at the end of that journey.

To find out more about this topic, see 'What Doesn't Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth'

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