For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in personal growth and consciousness. I first learned about the concept of post-traumatic growth back in college while doing research for an abnormal psychology class, it became the topic of an empirical review that I wrote.
I had read various other teachings that talked about the relationship between adversity and personal development, such as in eastern contemplative traditions and western philosophies, but this was the first that I encountered the subject in modern psychology.
In last week’s post, Adversity is a Gift, Don’t Play Victim Too Long, I wrote about my own personal experience with adversity and growth. This post is a deeper look into the mechanisms through which traumatic experiences can be transmuted into personal growth.
The term “post-traumatic growth” was coined to describe the experience of individuals whose personal development, at least in some areas, has progressed beyond their pre-trauma cognitive state.¹ When an individual experiences a traumatic event or period in their life, they often have shattered assumptions of the world around them and their role in it.
It is hypothesized that personal growth derives from an individual’s struggle with the crisis and the extent to which they can process the events and rebuild their outlook on life.² At the root of this shift is a greater appreciation for life in general and the endless opportunities it has to offer, both small and large.
There are five factors which the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory outlines for the assessment of post-traumatic growth: relating to others, recognizing new possibilities, personal strength, spiritual change, and appreciation of life.³ Let’s look at each one of these aspects and reflect on how they relate to the processing of trauma.
Relating to Others
Adversity and trauma, especially when involving death, show us how fragile life really is. This allows us to refocus on what is most important in life: loving, intimate relationships with close friends and family.
In processing trauma we can grow by allowing the trauma to refocus our priorities on personal relationships. We may become more willing to express emotions, develop increased compassion for others, find a greater sense of closeness, and put more effort into relationships.
Developing more secure personal relationships gives us a more resilient foundation and greater access to emotional support from our loving friends and family.
Recognizing New Possibilities or Paths in Life
A crisis or traumatic situation has the distinct ability to shatter our dreams and imaginations for the future, so it is important to recognize that there are alternate paths and possibilities available to us. This is especially the case when a partner or close family member dies “too soon,” but I suppose almost everyone has felt this shattering to some extent – such as with the breakup of a long term relationship where you imagined you would be with that person for the rest of your life, but then you’re not.
In order to accept reality we must come to terms with a future that doesn’t include what was lost – be it a loved one, our mobility, one of our senses, or something else of value.
In essence this factor is about accepting and moving on from the trauma. For me, the key to processing adversity is recognizing that new opportunities are available which wouldn’t have been presented if the experience never happened. This allows me to incorporate the experience into the bigger picture of life. Quite literally, by finding its unique place in my life I am able to accept the experience as reality.
A Greater Sense of Personal Strength
Part of our acceptance and consequent adaptation from the trauma must include a new outlook on life that incorporates the reality of what happened and “makes sense” of it. This produces a more resilient world view and thus a greater sense of personal strength.
We develop a greater sense of self-reliance and discover that we are stronger than we previously thought. Our pre-adversity assumptions were shattered, so we must take the opportunity to rebuild them and incorporate the experience in order to grow. From that new mindset it is easier to accept future experiences no matter how they work out, making us better able to handle difficult situations.
Everyone processes experiences differently, and this factor may not be seen as important by everyone. For me, being able to think in more abstract terms greatly enhances my ability to adapt and grow from adverse experiences. Spirituality and religion provide frameworks, or at least the tools to develop your own personal framework, that can fit your world view and aid in your internal processing.
I am personally a believer in philosophical diversity, I think that its important for people to be comfortable with having their own unique perspective on life. I view philosophical diversity as important as biological diversity in our ecosystem: the more perspectives we have in society, the greater innovation, creativity, and adaptation we can produce as a whole.
Appreciation of Life
When we adapt to the reality of a trauma, it is natural to shift our priorities of what is important in life. By recognizing the fragility of life and the finality of death (be it of a loved one, an experience, or a hope or aspiration) we develop a greater appreciation for the small things.
We value our life and our daily experiences more and choose simpler pleasures over more complex ones.
A trauma or crisis will change our perspective on life to varying degrees. They are the sharpest agents of change. When we witness or experience a trauma, we can either choose to adapt or resist. Our personal growth is determined by the extent that we adapt.
Change always comes, there is no way to stop change because it is the foundation of experience and time. When change comes, it will happen in one of three ways: inspiration, milestone, or adversity.
When we choose to change because some encounter with knowledge gave us the desire to, that’s inspiration.
When some event such as graduation from college or becoming a parent instigates change, that’s a milestone.
When we have not chosen to change through inspiration or allowed ourselves to change from a milestone, or simply when it’s the only way to make such a direct change, adversity comes to play. We label abrupt, unforgiving change as adversity – it’s uncomfortable and unforgiving. We must remember that this form of change is one of the greatest teachers.
See more of Ben's work here -> CLICK HERE
Sources and Further Reading
1. Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence, Psychological Inquiry, 15, pp. 1-18.
2. Calhoun, L. G. & Tedeschi, R.G. (2006). The Foundations of Posttraumatic Growth: An Expanded Framework, Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth, pp. 3-23.
3. Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the positive legacy of the trauma, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9, pp. 455-471.
I’m Ben! A travel-obsessed abstract thinker here to help you extract the hidden lessons behind your day-to-day experience.
Integrity Health is a franchise company residing in New Hampshire. We specialize in health coaching centers combining fitness with weight loss to optimize and promote optimal health. We are also the national purveyors of the EZCOACH Fitness Prescription System licensed by fitness professionals.