Everyone hopes to avoid the worst life has to offer—illness, loss and violence. Unfortunately, very few of us get through unscathed. These events inevitably cause great suffering, but they can also be a catalyst for positive change.
Therapists who work with trauma survivors have long observed and accepted this notion, but research scientists are now more seriously exploring the phenomenon. The phrase “post-traumatic growth” was coined by psychologists Richard Tedeshi and Lawrence Calhoun, who asked over 600 survivors how trauma changed their lives. Most reported negative effects. But to their surprise, a majority also reported positive outcomes. They described improved sense of self, deeper interpersonal relationships and a reorientation toward more fulfilling goals.
This does not mean that trauma is not also destructive and distressing. When life’s challenges come to call, our first thought is rarely, “How can I grow from this?” In the face of seemingly insurmountable struggle and pain, most of us will naturally respond, “How will I survive this?” or even, “Do I want to?” Perhaps the most encouraging discovery about post-traumatic growth is that optimism is not a requirement; a relief given that it can feel impossible, irritating or triggering to be told to focus on the positive after a traumatic experience.
Indeed, as Tedeshi and Calhoun write in The Handbook of Post-Traumatic Growth, Research and Practice, “the struggle to find new meaning in the aftermath of the trauma is crucial to positive psychological growth, as well as the acceptance that personal distress and growth can coexist, and often do, while these new meanings are crafted” (Tedeschi & Calhoun 2006). Trauma survivors who experience post-traumatic growth do so not by adopting a “grin and bear it” or “glass-half full” attitude, but by acknowledging their sadness, suffering, anger and grief, and remaining realistic about what they experienced. Having a positive attitude is less relevant than experiencing true feelings. Post-traumatic growth results from an active, engaged struggle with the stressor.
For many individuals, this growth comes from being listened to, acknowledged and accepted throughout all stages of the process. A skilled therapist can serve as an expert companion, offering support and resources during the period of initial turmoil, and then helping to transform challenges into opportunities.
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.
Calhoun, L. G. , & Tedeschi, R. G. (Eds.) (2006) The handbook of posttraumatic growth: Research and practice.Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
This post was written by, Jessica Muzio
Registered MFT Intern #73299