When a traumatic event occurs, it will affect people in different ways. Some will cope quickly with the distress, others will develop more severe symptoms over time and many will experience a phenomenon called “Post-traumatic growth” (PTG).
Post-traumatic growth is a positive psychological state that’s characterized by an increased appreciation of life, improved relationships with others, a new belief in life’s possibilities, a sense of personal strength, and spiritual connection. After something terrible happens, these PTG qualities help us move forward with purpose and empathy towards others. Essentially, we make lemonade out of lemons.
It might sound too good to be true, but studies have found that post-traumatic growth is frequently reported by survivors and witnesses. Approximately one-half to two-thirds of people who have experienced trauma show signs of PTG, making it the most common reaction to trauma. In comparison, only 2% will fit the description for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Although post-traumatic growth differs from the concept of resilience (i.e. the ability to “bounce back” or adapt to adverse conditions), they both share similar factors, including the use of healthy coping strategies, ability to seek comfort in others, and the maintenance of a goal-oriented mindset. To go beyond resilience, however, people need to face their fears and authentically process their difficult emotions. When done effectively, the effect can be — quite literally — life-changing.
The Relationship Between PTSD And PTG
It might seem like PTSD and PTG are on opposite ends of a spectrum, but that’s a misconception. Trauma reactions are much more complex and nonlinear. In fact, PTSD might be a better vehicle for growth. Researchers have found that higher levels of trauma and post-traumatic distress are associated with greater post-traumatic growth. To continue with our lemonade metaphor, the juice is worth the squeeze.
But what’s “the squeeze”? Well, it’s therapeutic emotional processing, a recommended treatment for PTSD recovery. With a trained, licensed professional — in a safe environment — you can explore uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Instead of attempting to manage their intrusive presence in your life, you can deliberately access these discomforts and use their power to make sense of the traumatic event. As you integrate the traumatic memories with your pre-traumatic memories, you can learn to shape a new reality for the future and stop living in the past.
Real Growth Takes Real Work
The lure to experience post-traumatic growth can cause some people to skip important steps, but there’s no shortcuts to growth. Sometimes we’re in such a hurry to feel better that we use avoidance to keep painful memories from raining on our parade. When we say things to ourselves like, “It’s okay” or “It’s fine,” when it’s really not, we’re avoiding our feelings. This might work in the short-term, but Harvard Medical School professor George E. Vaillant warns that it will distort our internal, or external reality, which can cause more problems in the long-run. We don’t want to adapt our world to suit our needs, we want to adapt ourselves to suit the realities of the world.
It was found that the strongest predictor of post-traumatic growth was when a person truly re-examined their core beliefs. This requires self-awareness and openness to new experiences — and while not for everyone, a touch of spirituality doesn’t seem to hurt. If you’re not religious, a connection with nature, creating art, or meditating count as spiritual practices. Those qualities help us to bear the distress of emotional processing. We can’t turn back when things get tough — we need the fortitude to go through it.
Get The Support You Need
If you can’t handle the distress of trauma processing alone, that’s perfectly normal. It can be incredibly overwhelming to feel pain that you’ve worked so hard to avoid. This is why a strong bond with your therapist is important. You need someone who will accompany you on your journey, coaxing you to go deeper, and then bringing you back up safely.
A therapist will also help you develop resilience, a precursor to PTG. You can look at your coping skills, making improvements if necessary, and set goals for your life. This connection in therapy will also help extend your connection to others. As we grow more comfortable talking about our feelings, we often find that our stress level and triggers become more manageable.
There will undoubtedly be times when you’d rather stay away from difficult feelings, but try to remember the rewards that post-traumatic growth offers. At the end of your hard work, there’s a good chance you’ll be in a better place than before.
If you’re looking to move past previous trauma, and maybe even grow from it, connecting with a licensed mental health professional online can be a great place to start.
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