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A Positive Legacy of Trauma: How Suffering Could Change You for the Better

April 21, 2017 Mental Health
Common Co-Occurring Disorders

At some point or another, most of us will experience a traumatic event in our lives. If we’re fortunate, we will heal from the physical or emotional wounds and return to our regularly scheduled lives, changed but somehow stronger. While we hear a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in our culture, trauma can also lead to positive changes. In fact, there’s a lesser-known phenomenon called post-traumatic growth (PTG), in which someone experiences beneficial psychological, emotional, or social changes in the aftermath of adversity.

“Post-traumatic growth is about the positive silver lining that will sometimes occur with people who have survived traumatic or near-death experiences,” explains Gary W. Buffone, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Jacksonville, Florida, and author of Transcending Trauma. “This can occur after the acute phase of the trauma has been resolved or addressed and the person is in a more stable state and is trying to incorporate their experience into their everyday life.”

The truth is, people have experienced post-traumatic growth in many situations — for example, after enduring a severe injury or illness (like cancer), experiencing a personal loss (such as the death of a loved one), surviving a natural disaster (such as an earthquake or tsunami), or serving in combat. In a 2015 survey of 3,157 U.S. veterans, researchers found that 50% reported at least moderate post-traumatic growth after their most upsetting or terrifying event and 72% of veterans who had previously screened positive for PTSD experienced some post-traumatic growth.

“The common ingredient is that the circumstances must seriously challenge, or perhaps even invalidate, the person’s understanding of their place in the world and their purpose in it,” explains Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte and a licensed clinical psychologist who coined the term post-traumatic growth (PTG) with his colleague Richard Tedeschi, PhD, in 1996. “A very common initial reaction of people who experience very stressful events is that things just don’t make sense,” Dr. Calhoun says. “As people begin to think about how to make sense of what has happened, that is the starting point for growth.”

When traumatic events shake “the core beliefs people have about themselves, other people, their life path, and the kind of world they live in, they’re forced to reconsider what they have assumed about such things,” adds Tedeschi, a professor of psychology at UNC Charlotte. “The rethinking of these core beliefs leads to changes in how people live.”

Typically, as people experience PTG they emerge from a traumatic event feeling psychologically stronger and more resilient — and they also can reap specific benefits from their adversity. These often include perceiving new possibilities in life, developing a greater sense of closeness in relationships and an increased sense of compassion for others, having a greater appreciation for life and a new sense of purpose in life, and undergoing changes in spirituality.

Granted, PTG doesn’t happen for everyone who experiences trauma. “It is common and widespread, but not everybody who encounters tough circumstances is going to grow [from the trauma],” Dr. Calhoun says. In order to pass through adversity and grow from it, you need to first deal with and process the intense psychological distress that comes from it. Then, if you make the effort to derive a sense of meaning and purpose out of the “negative” experience, you’ll begin to set the stage for growth to occur, Dr. Buffone says.

During the emotional journey, it also helps to cultivate strong coping skills. In a 2013 study at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, researchers found that women with breast cancer who cultivated increases in social support and used active-adaptive coping strategies (such as self-distraction, seeking emotional support, positive reframing, planning for the future and turning to religion) were more likely to experience post-traumatic growth. Similarly, in a 2015 study of paramedics who experienced traumatic events at work, researchers in Poland found that using problem-focused planning strategies promoted resiliency, which was in turn associated with post-traumatic growth. Meanwhile, a 2007 study from the University of Calgary in Canada found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program helps facilitate PTG in cancer patients.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that traumatic events don’t have to drag you down for the long haul. You can right yourself and end up not just surviving, but thriving. The key is to stay open to the possibility that adversity can change you for the better. To that end, it helps to “have people you can go to who will listen, care, and not necessarily try to fix you or your situation in difficult times,” Dr. Tedeschi says. So try to surround yourself with family members, friends, and even mental health professionals who will support you, help you process what happened to you, and encourage you to embrace the aftermath as an opportunity to become a better version of yourself.

By Stacey Colino

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