For a long time, the field of psychology focused on the psychopathology that can result from experiencing a traumatic event, or a highly distressing event that severely disrupts a person’s previously held core beliefs about the world and their place in it. We have all probably heard of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms resulting from things like exposure to combat, accidents, violent crimes, or even interpersonal traumas like infidelity or divorce. These distressing events can impair a person’s ability to perform day-to-day tasks, causing symptoms such as severe anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, or social isolation, to name just a few.
Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG)
But in recent years research has increasingly begun to focus on the growth that could be achieved in the aftermath of trauma. The concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG) was first developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s, and a more detailed model developed in more recent years. Tedeschi and Calhoun have defined PTG as follows: “the experience of positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises.” According to Tedeschi and Calhoun, PTG is manifested in a variety of ways, including “an increased appreciation for life in general, more meaningful interpersonal relationships, an increased sense of personal strength, changed priorities, and a richer existential and spiritual life.” It is important to note, however, as emphasized by Tedeschi and Calhoun, that growth does not simply occur as a direct result of the traumatic event. It is through the individual’s struggle with processing the trauma and integrating what has happened into a more robust sense of self and worldview that determine whether growth occurs – and to what extent.
But the concept of PTG shouldn’t overshadow the pain of the trauma
At the same time, it is equally important that we not let our enthusiasm for the concept of possible growth in the aftermath of trauma overtake our acknowledgement of the sheer distress and agony that the trauma or life crisis has inflicted on a person. Especially as a therapist, I am careful not to rush someone through the processing of the profound pain and loss often involved in the trauma in an attempt to hurry them to the “other side” or to “see the silver lining.” It can feel supremely insensitive if a person struggling in the aftermath of a highly distressing event perceives the therapist to be minimizing their pain in an attempt, however well-intentioned, to frame the event as simply a precursor to growth. The bulk of the difficult work of therapy often lies in the processing of the pain or the grieving of what we lost, to its full extent, at a pace that is manageable for the individual. The delicate balance is in honoring that pain and at the same time instilling hope for the future.
The phenomenon of PTG is just now beginning to receive scholarly attention, thanks in large part to the work of researchers like Tedeschi and Calhoun. With this kind of increased rigorous examination, a better understanding of the conditions that promote PTG is emerging, which can in turn better inform therapists and other clinicians in our work with trauma survivors or otherwise distressed individuals. As the age-old adage says, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” – and research seems to be finally backing this up.
Collier, Lorna. (2016, November). Growth After Trauma - Why are some people
more resilient than others – and can it be taught? American Psychological Association, 47(10). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma
Dell'Osso, L., Lorenzi, P., Nardi, B., Carmassi, C., & Carpita, B. (2022). Post
Traumatic Growth (PTG) in the Frame of Traumatic Experiences. Clinical neuropsychiatry, 19(6), 390–393.
Tedeschi, Richard G & Calhoun, Lawrence G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth:
Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15:1, 1-18, doi: 10.1207/s15327965pli1501_01