Post-Traumatic Growth: Emerging Stronger After Stress

Alan Lock was 24 years old and living his dream of serving as an officer in the British Royal Navy when he went almost completely blind as the result of a genetic condition. He lost his sight and his career. That was not the end of his story, however. He became the first severely visually-impaired person to row a boat across the Atlantic and to ski from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole.

Lock is known as a “supersurvivor,” and an example of great “post-traumatic growth” (PTG), a construct of positive psychological change that occurs as the result of one’s struggle with a highly-challenging, stressful and traumatic event.

PTG was first explored by Richard G. Tedeschi, Ph.D., and Lawrence G. Calhoun, Ph.D., both licensed psychologists and professors of psychology at University of North Carolina, Charlotte, after they noticed the theme of growth in conversation with people who had experienced major life crises. Several hundred studies have used the post-traumatic growth research Tedeschi and Calhoun created.

Studies showing that up to 80 percent of individuals experience a traumatic event that goes beyond the normal stressors of life. In contrast, studies show that just 17 percent of people with trauma have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of people in the aftermath of trauma not only bounce back, but they bounce forward and grow in some way,” says David Feldman, associate professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University and co-author of “Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success,” featuring Lock and other remarkable supersurvivors. “We human beings are incredibly resilient.”

While we don’t typically associate trauma with a positive outcome, Feldman says it can offer a “perverse” opportunity to examine our lives and take them in a new direction.

Jim Rendon, author of “Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth,” says PTG isn’t a linear process. It’s not common for people to go through something traumatic and emerge happy.

“A lot goes on and you can be suffering and growing at the same time,” Rendon says. “The idea that growth and suffering are mutually exclusive is easy to latch on and totally wrong.”

The magnitude of growth varies, with changes associated with PTG as simple as appreciating each day more and deepening relationships with friends and family. Meanwhile, some people might experience more dramatic changes such as a big career shift or founding a charity that helps thousands.

“In my role a role as cancer center psychologist, it was really amazing to me how common it is that people will say that the experience of having cancer has helped them bring their priorities into focus, improved relationships, appreciate life more than before, and develop spiritually,” says Suzanne Danhauer, Ph.D., and associate professor of public health sciences at Wake Forest Baptist Health.

PTG does not happen immediately. “For most people, it takes some time for them to handle their emotional pain and for them to be able to work out how they may change in positive ways,” says Tedeschi. “Different people experience growth at different points in their journey and in different ways.”

Social support is one of the most important factors in helping people to be resilient after trauma. Feldman advises that those offering support be persistent and consistent.

“Even if the victim isn’t open to support right now, don’t go away. Continue to be there and offer support,” he says. “You can’t make them accept, but you can be consistent in offering of support. And if you are going to offer support, make sure that you’re willing to follow through.”

The experts agree that telling those suffering to stay positive is not linked to PTG and not necessarily helpful.

“The concept of PTG is not telling anyone to be positive, but rather talking about positive changes that people have made in their own lives,” says Danhauer.

Lock told Feldman that many friends told him to only think positive thoughts in the aftermath of his trauma, but he felt he was lying to himself and those he loved by putting on a happy face. Instead, he and others said they found realistic thinking to be the most helpful.

“Once he accepted the reality of the situation, he could take steps to build the best life he could on top of that reality using his personal strengths to walk toward a better future,” says Feldman.

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