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The process of post traumatic growth (PTG)

Increasing interest in Post Traumatic Growth

I have recently come across a number of articles on the idea of “Post traumatic growth”, often shortened to PTG. It describes the positive changes that can occur when an individual struggles with a major life-changing event or trauma.

While interest and understanding of post traumatic growth has only surfaced in psychology research over the past 20 years or so, we can see that the idea goes back a long way. You are probably familiar with the saying that has been attributed to the 19th Century German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche – “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

The idea that we might actually feel benefit from experiencing horribly difficult traumatic life events is certainly a challenging one and can be hard to comprehend. So what does post-traumatic growth look like? Here are the stories of two people:

“Anything is Possible”

Martine Wright lost both her legs in the London 7/7 bombings in 2005. Yet she describes the experience as being one that had profound and positive effects on her life. “People ask me if I would turn the clock back. Part of me says: ‘Yeah, it would be nice to have my legs back’. But my life now is so amazing. I’ve had the opportunity to do so much, meet so many people. I don’t think I would turn that clock back if I had the chance." Following the 7/7 bombings, Martine gave up her City job and became a Paralympian athlete and inspirational speaker. She has since got married, had a baby, learnt to fly a plane, done a parachute jump and learnt to ski. In Martine’s words “anything is possible”.

Martine's experience led to significant post traumatic growth. Despite struggles initially, she now acknowledges the positive impacts of her experience.

Martine's experience led to significant post traumatic growth. Despite struggles initially, she now acknowledges the positive impacts of her experience.

“The Gift to Live Differently”

The so-called ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ plane crash happened in January 2009 when a US Airways Flight 1549 lost power in all engines and made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York. It was the first time in history that a plane had made an emergency landing on water and all passengers and crew had survived. Many survivors have since reported a changed and more positive perspective on life since their experience of trauma. Many changed their lives, giving up high-powered jobs, and deepening their existing relationships. One of the 155 survivors was Ric Elias, who had a front row seat on the plane that day. He says of his life since the crash “I no longer want to postpone anything in life, and that urgency has really changed my life. I was given the gift of a miracle - of not dying. I was given another gift which was to see into the future and to come back and live differently”. (TED talk, March 2011).

Changes due to post traumatic growth

There are countless experiences and stories like these, and you have probably heard of similar ones. For some people the experience of major trauma, bereavement, and near-death experience can act as a catalyst for a changed perspective on life and relationships, meaning that living a more meaningful and fulfilling life becomes possible. 

Research by Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi has shown that there are three areas of post-traumatic growth:

  • A changed sense of oneself – this could be the realisation of personal strength
  • A changed sense of relationship with others – perhaps deeper bonds and meaningful relationships with others
  • A changed philosophy of life – often seen as developing a new appreciation of life and taking up new possibilities and opportunities

Post-traumatic growth isn’t something that everyone experiences, and even for those who do it is unlikely to be overnight. Martine Wright, for example, describes the first five years of adjusting to life following 7/7 as “really, really tough”. The type of experience that the stories of Martine and Ric give us may not be representative of the type of growth that most people have. For many, just the realisation that they have the strength to survive the trauma, and by default other difficulties in the future, is enough of a positive outcome.

What predispositions do people need to have to experience post traumatic growth?

Again, research by Calhoun and Tedeschi suggest that those people who are generally more open to experience and who have a generally benign view about how the world works and their place in it, may be those most likely to experience post-traumatic growth.

The process of post traumatic growth is most likely to occur when the right mindset is adopted.

The process of post traumatic growth is most likely to occur when the right mindset is adopted.

Another key component appears to be the opportunity that the trauma experience offers for an individual’s existing core beliefs to be challenged. If an individual’s core beliefs already provide an adequate explanation for the trauma experience, then post-traumatic growth is unlikely. People who believe that the experience was ‘part of a master plan’, ‘all God’s work’ or who understand the world as operating very randomly, for example, are unlikely to have their core beliefs contradicted by a trauma experience. However, for those whose core beliefs and view of the world is strongly challenged by the trauma and who are open to the experience, post-traumatic growth may be possible.

The first step to post traumatic growth

It seems that acceptance of the reality of the traumatic experience in the present is the vital first step that begins the process of ending the emotional distress and suffering experienced in the aftermath of a traumatic experience. This doesn’t mean that the problem goes away, but this acceptance of the reality of the situation can lead to a greater understanding of yourself and a greater meaning in your life.