Understanding more about Post-Traumatic Growth
As we move into a longer period of dealing with the collective trauma of a global pandemic, you may come across the term post-traumatic growth (PTG). It has been bandied around quite a bit in self-help posts and in the media in relation to the coronavirus. On one hand, it is great to see the concept being more widely talked about. On the other hand, there are so many misconceptions around what it actually means. Some of these articles have been written by healthcare or mental health professionals, who do not always fully understand the terminology.
For my research dissertation, I conducted my primary research into the topic of post-traumatic growth specifically in regard to coaching professionals. In my not-for-profit CHAMPS for Change, I’m heading up research into how women who have experienced domestic abuse may experience thrivership and growth as a result of their trauma. Therefore, I’ve learnt a lot in the past few years, and it is my ultimate passion to investigate and teach on this subject.
I wanted to give BALANCE readers an opportunity to understand at a very high level what PTG means and the ability to apply it to their own life experiences. It will also provide context as to why some people will emerge from lockdown with a changed outlook on their life and an ability to reframe their new normal.
What does ‘post-traumatic growth’ mean?
Since time began, the potential growth from human struggle in loss, crisis and suffering has been recounted. It is also a hugely popular formula in movies and books; for example, those who battle through all the odds, learning from their difficulties and emerging stronger – basically any Marvel movie (if you’re a geek like me!). Post-traumatic growth refers to the 1990s phenomenon of people experiencing positive changes following adversity, which can be captured by the paraphrased adage of Nietzsche: ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’. PTG can be either a process or an outcome depending on where the individual is at that point in time.
For someone to go through a traumatic experience is incredibly personal. When we think of the word trauma it can conjure up the thought of war or a natural disaster – which would be correct – but it could also be the loss of a job or the breakdown of a romantic relationship. A traumatic experience may not affect two people in the same way. The pandemic has been called a collective trauma, although, of course, some of us will have been more deeply affected than others. This means it might not be only our personal assumptions that have been shattered but also the assumptions we held of the world around us, such as being safe in a public area. This is called ‘shattered assumptions theory’, and how we rebuild ourselves after trauma is at the heart of this theory.
Post-traumatic growth can be viewed as either the outcome or the process of the positive change experienced by an individual. It means that, after experiencing trauma, they return to a different and higher level of functioning than that prior to the occurrence of the stressful life event. This can be recognised as a positive change or benefit and PTG can be defined as the process of an individual rebuilding themselves post-trauma, by being able to acknowledge the trauma they have experienced in a non-anxious way.
What are the changes through PTG?
Through the research conducted, there are perceived growth areas for someone who has struggled with trauma or a stressful life event. These are:
- changes in self-perception
- changes in relationships with others
- a changed philosophy in life
- a deeper appreciation for life
- a new sense of life direction, opportunities, purpose and priorities.
PTG has features which are unique in comparison with other growth theories that you may have come across before; PTG is not considered to be another coping strategy, as it can be perceived as a process or an outcome. However, it is essential the person recognises an increase in their mental or physical capacity following the trauma.
Debunking the myths about PTG
I mentioned myths about PTG at the start and I feel it is important to establish that PTG is not:
- a universal experience for every individual who experiences trauma to also experience growth
- a state of complete, hedonic happiness where someone feels on top of the world
- a denial of the stressful or traumatic experience
- the individual feeling happy, positive or wishing for the trauma to have happened
PTG is characterised as a rebuilding of life expectations and assumptions with a more realistic view of the world and self in the world. It is when someone can move forward with a renewed sense of who they are. They can experience both the good and bad days, yet – ultimately – they know they have been exposed to the raw intensity of a painful traumatic experience that they will always carry with them.
If you want to know more about PTG and understand more using a self-help concept called the ‘THRIVE’ model, a book I highly recommend – which was my starting point in educating myself – is What doesn’t kill us: The new psychology of post-traumatic growth by Professor Stephen Joseph, and it can be purchased on Amazon. You can also follow me @ruth.cooperdickson @champsconsult.
Ruth Cooper-Dickson is a Positive Psychology Practitioner and qualified Coach, who has studied Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology. She is the Founder and MD of the global mental wealth people consultancy, CHAMPS, partnering with progressive organisations helping them to ingrain a culture of positive mental wealth. Ruth is a passionate runner, an addicted life-long learner and a lover of all things cake!