Written by : Shelley Levitt  

The Science of Post-Traumatic Growth

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in May 1980, 13-year-old Cari Lightner was walking to a church carnival just a few blocks from her home in Fair Oaks, CA, when she was hit by a car and thrown 125 feet in the air. The driver didn’t stop. He was, Cari’s mother Candace would later learn, drunk and out on bail for another drunken driving hit and run. Cari did not survive. Five months after her daughter’s death, Candace held a press conference on Capitol Hill, announcing the formation of MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. In the 33 years since then, the non-profit’s public advocacy work has helped save more than 300,000 lives.

Carlos Arredondo, 52, was sitting in the bleachers near the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off. He had been waiting to greet runners from Tough Ruck, activeduty National Guard soldiers who march the course carrying 40-pound military backpacks, or “rucks,” to honor comrades killed in combat or lost to suicide. Arredondo clutched an American flag and photos of his two deceased sons—Alexander, who died in a firefight in Iraq in 2004, and Brian, who, deeply depressed over his older brother’s death, hanged himself seven years later. Spotting a young runner with both legs blown off below the knee, Arredondo rushed from the stands, smothered the flames that were still burning the runner’s legs with his hands, then ripped a T-shirt into makeshift tourniquets. An iconic photograph from the day captured Arredondo, in his cowboy hat, his hands soaked in blood, pushing the 27-year old Jeff Bauman in a wheelchair. He would later say, “I had my son on my mind” as he repeated to Bauman, “Stay with me, stay with me.”

Strength After Upheaval

These stories are all illustrations of what experts call post-traumatic growth, or PTG, the phenomenon of people becoming stronger and creating a more meaningful life in the wake of staggering tragedy or trauma. They don’t just bounce back—that would be resilience—in significant ways, they bounce higher than they ever did before.

The term PTG was coined in 1995 by Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D., and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D., psychologists at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. “We’d been working with bereaved parents for about a decade,” Richard says. “They’d been through the most shattering kind of loss imaginable. I observed how much they helped each other, how compassionate they were toward other parents who had lost children, how in the midst of their own grief they often wanted to do something about changing the circumstances that had led to their child’s death to prevent other families from suffering the kind of loss they were experiencing. These were remarkable and grounded people who were clear about their priorities in life.”

None of these parents, Richard stresses, believed that their child’s death was a good thing. They would have given up all their newfound activism, insights and altruism, their re-ordered sense of what really matters in life, to have their child back. “The process of growth does not eliminate the pain of loss and tragedy,” Lawrence says. “We don’t use words like healing, recovery or closure.” But out of loss there is often gain, he says. And in ways that can be deeply profound, a staggering crisis can often change people for the better.

The Superhero Within Us

We’ve always known that people often grow stronger and discover a sense of mission after tragedy strikes. It’s the stuff of our superheroes, real and fictional. Batman’s caped crusade against crime was inspired by his witnessing the murder of his parents.

When Christopher Reeve, the actor who played another superhero, was left a quadriplegic by an equestrian accident, he briefly considered suicide. Instead, with Superman-like resolve, he became a powerful advocate for people with spinal-cord injuries. The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which outlived him and his wife, has awarded more than $81 million to researchers working on a cure for paralysis.

In some ways, the term PTG gave experts the language to express, and recognize, something that was hiding in plain sight: trauma’s potential to transform us in positive ways. “Mental health professionals have a long history

of looking only at what’s wrong with human functioning,” says psychologist Anna A. Berardi, Ph.D., who directs the Trauma Response Institute at George Fox University in Portland, OR. “But if you ask people, “Have you been through something difficult and come out the other side stronger, wiser and more compassionate?” the majority of us would answer yes. That’s powerful proof that as humans we’re wired to grow as a result of hardship.”

The concept of PTG is a striking contrast to PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, the lens through which we’ve viewed trauma for the past few decades. First applied to veterans of the Vietnam War, PTSD entered the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the guidebook to psychiatric diagnosis, in 1980. It became embedded in our popular culture as well. “During those post-Vietnam years the main character in shows like Hawaii 5-0 was often the crazed, paranoid Vietnam veteran who’s going to shoot up innocent people,” says Lawrence. Soon PTSD was being evoked after any type of catastrophic event, natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, acts of violence such as 9/11 or the mass shootings in Columbine and Newtown. A psychiatrist’s warning that survivors were likely to start showing symptoms of PTSD—vivid flashbacks, emotional numbing, high levels of anxiety and depression, substance abuse— became a staple of the media’s catastrophe coverage.

In fact, PTSD is relatively rare. According to statistics from the Department of Veteran Affairs, an estimated 3.6 percent of Americans will experience PTSD during the course of a given year, a fraction of the more than 50 percent of those who report at least one traumatic event. Many more will find that they’ve gained something from their ordeal. “A small percentage of people cannot return to their previous level of functioning after a traumatic event,” says Anna. “Most people emerge from a trauma wiser, with a deeper appreciation of life.”

PTG is much more than a new acronym, says psychologist Stephen Joseph, Ph.D., the co-director of the Center for Trauma, Resilience and Growth in Nottingham, England, and author of the book What Doesn't Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth. “It promises,” he writes, “to radically alter our ideas about trauma— especially the notion that trauma inevitably leads to a damaged and dysfunctional life.”

The Paradox of Gain After Loss

Post-traumatic growth is a response to a seismic event that rocks your world to its very core. Your psychological house isn’t merely rattled—it’s leveled. “Trauma disrupts your core beliefs,” says Judith Mangelsdorf, Ph.D., a trauma researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. “It’s so far from what you’ve experienced in your life that you can’t integrate it into your belief system. You’re walking home down a street that you thought was safe, and you’re raped. Your core beliefs are shattered.” It’s not the trauma itself that leads to growth but the process of rebuilding, of creating new anchors in a life that has become unmoored.

In 2004 Anna traveled to Indonesia as a mental-health first responder after the tsunami that killed over 225,000 people. Entire villages had been wiped out. “The challenge that faced the survivors,” Anna says, “is at the end of the day, can you build your capacity to comprehend what’s happened, and to find meaning in your life?” She recalls one local doctor who was helping tend to the injured. He’d lost his entire family—wife, sons, parents, siblings. “Everything was gone,” Anna says, “but he said, ‘Every day I thank God that I have air to breathe, and I can still use my body and my mind to serve. I’m praying to Allah that I can use this tragedy to learn how to love better.’ ” Anna pauses, then continues. “I was humbled by him.”

If that’s a snapshot of post-traumatic growth, the long view is fuzzier. People who go on to a richly redefined life after a crisis may begin with reactions to their trauma that are so violent and extreme, it’s difficult to imagine they can survive, much less thrive. When Carlos Arredondo learned that his son had been killed in a hail of gunfire in Najaf, Iraq, he doused himself with gasoline and lit a propane torch. Suffering second- and third-degree burns, he attended Alexander’s funeral on a stretcher.

Distress doesn’t end when growth begins. “You’re talking about the paradox of loss and gain happening at the same time,” says Richard. “It’s a messy, clumsy and difficult path.” Posttraumatic stress and post-traumatic growth may keep company for the rest of our lives. “These experiences co-exist,” says Calhoun. “When someone loses a child, growth may make that pain bearable and may provide meaning to your life. And as time goes on you will have more good days than bad days, but you will always be a bereaved parent.”

Five Areas of Positive Change

If heart-wrenching loss is part of the human condition so is its flipside: being propelled by the crisis to make positive, meaningful life changes. Researchers have documented post-traumatic growth in Vietnam POWs, the survivors of serious car accidents in Tokyo, women who have battled breast cancer, soldiers who were held as prisoners of war in the Middle East, Germans who survived the Dresden bombings, Turkish earthquake survivors, Bosnian war refugees.

Every trauma is a singular one and everyone’s reactions a mix of his or her unique history, resources, biology and temperament. But patterns exist. Richard and Lawrence, who developed an assessment tool called the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory, found that people experience growth in five broad areas. They have a deeper appreciation of life, they experience new possibilities for themselves, their relationships are closer, they feel more spiritually satisfied and they experience a greater sense of personal strength.

Judith Mangelsdorf volunteers at the Björn Schulz Foundation in Berlin. Established in 1997 by the parents of an 8-year-old boy who died of leukemia, the foundation operates hospices and provides a wide range of support services to the families of children who are terminally ill. Judith has watched many families move from paralyzing grief through intense self-reflection to a broader way of seeing their role in the world.

She offers a sketch of how loss can become a catalyst for positive change. Immediately after the death of a child, parents are, she says, in total despair. “They are suffering so much they feel it’s the end of their life,” she says. “Many wake up night after night with the same dream of their child suffering.” Because you are so clearly suffering, she says, people who care about you show their support. A friend moves into your guest room, your employer says to take as much time off as you need, someone from the church spends an hour with you every day. “You’re still filled with sorrow and searching for answers to the question of why this happened,” says Judith, “but you realize that there are people in your life you can really rely on. And slowly, there may come a point when you think that while you can’t change your own destiny, you may be able to help others.” Many of the parents Judith works with at the Björn Schulz Foundation go on to become “voluntary family companions,” offering compassion to others who are experiencing the anguish of saying goodbye to a dying child.

What We Can Learn from Trauma Thrivers

Judith says that witnessing these transformations has changed her. She has more perspective, for starters. “Being appreciative of life is something that is very present for me,” she says. After she finishes her last therapy session of the day, she often walks down to the Spree River with her partner, who is also a psychologist. “We take a bottle of wine,” she says, “sit with our feet in the river and talk about what went well—not wrong—that day.”

A strong social network and experiencing positive emotions on a daily basis are two things, she says, that help people deal with crisis. She suggests to her patients, and to friends, simple techniques to enhance both. Make a list of five things that make your day a better day—a walk in the park with the dog, a latte at Starbucks, cuddling with your partner, a chat with your sister, 30 minutes spent reading a novel—and try to do them more often. Practice random acts of kindness. When you go to the grocery store ask your 88-year-old neighbor if there’s anything she needs.

Ask Richard, who has studied trauma now for over three decades, what we can do to strengthen our potential to experience post-traumatic growth, and he suggests that’s the wrong question to pose. The more meaningful exploration, he says, is what lessons we can take from people who have emerged from trauma stronger, wiser and more compassionate. What do people like Carlos Arredondo, Christopher Reeve, the friend who came out of her breast cancer treatment with stronger family ties, the co-worker who has reshuffled his priorities after a fire destroyed his home have to teach us? “If you can figure out how to live your life as a fully functioning, fully engaged human being,” he says, “you won’t need trauma to transform you, because you’ve already done the work.”

Read more: Learning to Thrive With Post-Traumatic Growth

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