Can trauma help us grow?
We don’t have to fight in a war to experience trauma. The number of civilians affected by post-traumatic stress disorder is 13 times larger than that in military personnel. Trauma happens all the time, everywhere and to everyone, including everyday Americans.
Social scientists who study how trauma affects people have determined that there are risk and resilience factors that predispose or protect people from the effects of trauma. There are also different types of trauma — childhood trauma, sudden trauma, ongoing trauma, physical trauma, emotional trauma, and so on. All of these factors determine how individuals respond and whether or not their subsequent behavior will be healthy and adaptive or unhealthy and adaptive.
After trauma, some people experience distress while others grow stronger from the experience. Many, if not all, experience both. Distress often shifts to growth over time under certain conditions, such as abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and adequate social support.
In the mass media, post-traumatic stress disorder is disproportionately perceived as negative and affecting mostly military members. A research group at Drexel University in Atlanta illustrated how this is done — mainly by focusing on the traumatic events that occur and the negative consequences that sometimes follow. The Drexel team pointed out how “the narrow focus could inhibit awareness about PTSD resilience and recovery and constrain discourse … that can lead to better outcomes.”
The positive side of being a trauma survivor is that, like scar tissue, trauma can result in stronger defenses to future stress and trauma. When a physical wound heals, the scar tissue that grows is stronger than the injured tissue and offers additional protection against future injury. In a similar fashion, mental scars can also provide growth and protection from future injury.
An example of growth from psychosis
A new review explored patients’ outcomes after their first episode of psychosis. The first episode of psychosis can be very traumatic and result in great suffering. However, the authors discovered that post-traumatic growth also occurs, as patients reported positive outcomes resulting from the episode. For example, some patients were inspired to develop positive traits and make healthy lifestyle changes. Others developed stronger connections with others, appreciated life more and experienced positive spiritual effects.
The gifts of surviving trauma
Lawrence G. Calhoun, Ph.D., and Richard G. Tedeschi, Ph.D., are leaders in post-traumatic growth research and education at the University of North Carolina department of psychology. They describe five general areas that can be positively affected by traumatic events. These include:
- New opportunities and possibilities open up.
- Relationships become closer.
- A sense of mastery over adversity develops, increasing inner strength.
- Feelings of gratitude and appreciation for life in general grow stronger.
- Spirituality and religious beliefs grow deeper.
Calhoun and Tedeschi acknowledge that not everyone can grow from trauma.
When it’s too much to bear
Sometimes the thoughts and feelings that result from traumatic experiences can be overwhelming and affect a person’s ability to function. Other times alcohol, drugs, food or other unhealthy activities that soothed trauma symptoms at first go on to become dangerous addictions. New treatments are available that can truly make a difference for trauma survivors and their families. Conventional therapies, too, can help bridge the gap between distress and growth.
The Sovereign Health Group is a leader in the treatment of people with mental and behavioral disorders and dual diagnosis. Comprehensive treatment includes novel, conventional and holistic therapies tailored for each individual patient. Our programs provide trauma-informed care and specialized treatment to foster healthy adaptation to life events. Our ongoing continuing care program provides the support patients need to remain free from symptoms and enjoy lasting recovery. To find out more about specialized programs at Sovereign Health, please call us at our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.