What is Posttraumatic Growth in Trauma Treatment?
“Once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
–Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore.
The storms of trauma can be life changing. Much like rain and thunder, the fierceness and power of trauma can create a whirlwind of disruption across our lives in more ways than can be seen or easily understood. However, there are ways to soften these blows and give ourselves and the ones we love the skills to handle life’s greatest challenges. We can all learn how to best recover from trauma and grow into stronger and more grounded people through a process called posttraumatic growth.
Posttraumatic growth (PTG) is the idea that positive psychological change can be experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. In everyday life, PTG may look like an increased appreciation for life, positively changed priorities, a deeper spiritual or existential life, an improved sense of personal strength, or even more meaningful and richer relationships with others. Have you ever heard somebody say something along the lines of, “I’ve been through so much; now I have a different appreciation for things”? This is one example of PTG. While PTG does not make the aftermath of trauma less painful, it can provide strategies for survivors to recover from trauma in a way that enables them to better endure future hardship.
Human beings are naturally inclined towards growth. In fact, research has shown that around 90% of trauma survivors have demonstrated some of the aforementioned aspects of posttraumatic growth following a traumatic experience (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). This does not mean that these survivors have experienced a full recovery, as trauma often has lasting and covert effects, but instead that they have grown in some aspects of their lives. So what can we do to promote posttraumatic growth? Put simply, there are two factors that help with trauma recovery and can lead to growth: trauma processing and social support.
Processing means “working through” the trauma. It helps survivors better understand themselves and their feelings. In turn, processing may alleviate some unresolved feelings and sensations caused by the trauma, allowing some survivors to experience a sense of inner contentment. Having a better understanding of their trauma not only helps survivors have a stronger sense of control over their situation and themselves, but also allows them to more easily develop effective coping skills to manage their trauma responses. A crucial part of a psychotherapist’s job is to help survivors process that trauma in a safe, guided, and controlled environment; however, trauma processing can be supplemented at home through journaling about one’s experiences and talking with close friends. Although trauma processing can be emotionally painful and triggering, if done in a safe and appropriate way, it is an effective and healthy method to help someone recover and grow from their experiences.
The second strategy to promote growth after trauma is to engage in social support. Surrounding ourselves with compassionate people helps us feel cared for, prevents feelings of loneliness, and provides an excellent opportunity to process trauma. Research shows that trauma survivors who feel supported by others experience significantly more growth than those who do not feel supported (van der Kolk, 2014). For adults, support may come from trusted family members, close friends, a church group, or even online communities. For young people and even babies, the act of simply being held helps them feel supported and gives them comfort – knowing that the big, strong adult will take care of their problems. The knowledge that we are not alone, that we have people we can rely on, enables trauma survivors to grow.
Trauma affects all of us. However, with the right tools survivors can do their best to recover and even thrive. This journey is never easy and should never be taken lightly, but through trauma processing and a healthy support system those affected by trauma can make positive changes in their lives – changes that can help survivors weather life’s many storms.
Tedeschi, R., & Calhoun, L. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.