If you can deal with that, you can deal with anything. It’s an expression we’ve all come across and it refers to our capacity to bounce back from adversity. A psychologist will refer to this process as resilience, but is there a point where the term resilience doesn’t quite do some experiences justice? Post-traumatic growth (PTG) refers to the highly personal positive changes that result in some people after experiencing some kind of traumatic event.
The idea of personal growth and greater appreciation of things in life after some personal crisis is not new, but is increasing being incorporated into psychological studies in a more systematic way. PTG then, is a kind of wake up call that involves a heightened awareness of things around us, or the sense that new opportunities have arisen, or perhaps a fundamental shift in beliefs resulting from major life crises.
Major life crises mean anything from losing a job to losing a loved one, to surviving a major accident, diagnosis, or environmental disaster. Such things can shake people to the core and make them re-evaluate themselves and what’s around them. Resilience suggests a return to some previous state, but sometimes going back to where you were before the crisis isn’t an option. Too much has changed and your view of life and your behavior may be different. A radical and positive change is thought of as thriving. Thriving can be thought of as a move beyond resilience and explains something about PTG.
For the sake of argument let’s imagine a person has survived a life-threatening health issue (cancer, a brain tumor, a major heart attack). The psychological trauma may be such that it leads them down a path of anxiety and depression, or it may not. Even if it does it may be the start of a journey that ultimately leads to a fresh appreciation of life and a new personal philosophy. They may also become more acutely aware of their own strengths and limitations and be more empathetic to the needs of others. Friends and loved one’s will often come into sharper focus as to their real value and they in turn may feel the need for greater love and companionship.
Trauma is damaging. People suffer as they experience it and it may haunt them for years to come. Personal growth through suffering is a bitter-sweet thing and not everyone who experiences trauma will experience personal growth afterwards. As to whether growth is an outcome or a process is a moot point. As things stand we need to know more about what PTG really refers to. Is it an issue of wellbeing? What factors are needed to promote its development and what is the nature of growth in this context?
Park, C.L. & Helgeson, V.S. (2006). Introduction to the special section: Growth following highly stressful life events – Current status and future directions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 5, 791 – 796.
Tedeschi, R.G., & Calhoun, C.G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 1 – 18.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.