Getting Stronger: Opportunity in Posttraumatic Growth

I recently came across an article from the Wall Street Journal featuring a firsthand account of an individual living through Hurricane Irma, which hit Miami in 2017. The author highlighted the ways in which she became a stronger, more confident person after living through the frightening events of preparing for and then riding out the hurricane. It got me thinking about our current COVID-19 pandemic. This is certainly a traumatic time. We have a lot of fear about our health and safety. We have anxiety about our jobs and our futures. So many unknowns. And then, on top of this, we’re required to physically isolate ourselves from our friends and extended family members. But – there is always a but! – there are some opportunities for growth here. Science has shown that humans can grow through adversity. Are you rolling your eyes? Maybe your doubtful, but hopeful? Stay with me here.

Getting Stronger: Opportunity in Posttraumatic Growth

Posttraumatic Growth Theory (PTG) Explained

In the mid-1990s, psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, pioneered Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) Theory, which posits many people who endure psychological struggle following adversity do find positive growth afterward. Tedeschi and Calhoun explain, “There appears to be a basic paradox apprehended by trauma survivors who report these aspects of posttraumatic growth: Their losses have produced valuable gains.” This growth involves significant and impactful shifts in thinking about the individual’s world.

Not to be confused with the personality trait of resiliency, PTG is an outcome to a struggle. Those with a more resilient personality may not experience PTG simply given the fact that they are less adversely impacted by the event in the first place.

Tedeschi and Calhoun discovered that posttraumatic growth generally presents in five key areas: a new or greater appreciation for life, relationships with others (which can include a connectedness with fellow sufferers), new possibilities in life, greater personal strength and spiritual change.

PTG is Not Universal

Posttraumatic growth is not a given. Two people can live through the same traumatic event and emerge differently. Growth is not guaranteed. As we know, people can regress as a result of a traumatic event, having been irreparably damaged by the experience. Enduring the same event or situation, we may find one person comes out subtly changed for the better, one experiences transforming personal growth and still another is completely unchanged.

How Can I Get Some of This Growth?

Early research is showing there may be some genetic predisposition to PTG. For example, someone who’s inherited a more optimistic personality might be more likely to grow from a bad experience. But, again, personality is thought to be a 50/50 mix of genes and life experiences. Regardless, research has shown two personality traits tied to a greater likelihood of PTG: openness to experience and extraversion. If you think about it, it makes sense. Someone more open to a challenge of their belief system is more likely to consider and digest new inputs. And, an extrovert is more likely to proactively process an experience in a healthy manner by leaning into their support network. There are takeaways here – proactively looking for the positive and connecting with others.

There is Value in Having Awareness of the Opportunity for Growth

Professional trauma recovery practices, such as counseling, can help facilitate PTG after a traumatic event occurs. But, simply enabling someone to see that posttraumatic growth can, in fact, happen is an effective way to seed growth. And this brings me back to us and the here and now. Let’s take a run through the five areas of growth the researchers identified. Understanding that each of us is unique and will process our current environment differently, I’ll throw out a few common examples.

  • Appreciation for life. I don’t know about you, but I’m thankful to be healthy and alive, living through this experience. I’m thankful those I love have remained healthy. It may not be the best of times, but I’ve been given the chance to be here in this moment. There have been individuals who have contracted the novel coronavirus, and survived. They’ve now documented their gratitude for coming out on the other side, celebrating their renewed appreciation for life. Both of these are examples of PTG.
  • Relationship with others. Yes, there have been struggles. Homeschooling is hard for many. 24/7 with a spouse is hard for many. Missing time with parents and the freedom to socialize in person has been hard for many. But, I’ve heard SO MANY good stories of people connecting despite our social distancing. Some have found the time to finally indulge in a long phone call with a good friend. Extended family members have learned the value of video conferencing get togethers. Nuclear families have had the chance to sit down together to play boardgames and watch movies. Some of us have realized just how much we value the day-to-day interactions and support we receive from coworkers. Parents have been given the opportunity to guide their child through school lessons, watching in real time as they grasp a new concept. Spouses have grown closer talking through fears and strategies. This all is PTG.
  • New Possibilities in Life. Maybe you’ve already decided you’re not going back to some of your old ways. Perhaps you’ve seen firsthand that a fully scheduled weekend is less rewarding than one that is allowed to unfold. If you’ve lost your job, you may be in the middle of your traumatic event, and I encourage you to connect with those you love for support. But, maybe this pause has given you time to look for income producing opportunities that better align with your core values, and now you’re taking action. This is PTG.
  • Personal Strength. Have you learned something new during this time? Maybe you didn’t know how to do a video conference before now. Maybe you have learned to cook with limited ingredients. Have you had to rework a budget or apply for a small business loan? Have you been teaching your children for the first time? Maybe you’ve simply, finally, told yourself, “This isn’t the end of the world.” Give yourself credit for how far you have come. Take it in and consider what else you can accomplish. This is PTG.
  • Spiritual Change. This one is perhaps the most personal so my examples will swing wide, but there is a reason everything from organized religion to Alcoholic’s Anonymous underscore a higher power. Spirituality is tied to connectedness and purpose and order in the universe. Have you acknowledged there are simply some things that are completely out of your control, and part of something larger? Can you call on a higher power for strength in these situations? Do you believe there is more to the story than that which we can comprehend now? This is PTG.

A worldwide pandemic isn’t something any of us would ask for. All of us are impacted by COVID-19, and some to devastating degrees. The human brain has exceptional adaptive capabilities. If we acknowledge and embrace the opportunity for growth, I believe we can truly find the growth, even in times as trying as now.

Through her work at Brain Basics, Kathy Walter has the privilege of guiding individuals to their full potential. Understanding the value of the right mindset, she fosters actionable self-awareness in individuals and teams using personalized coaching techniques and proven tools, like the Energy Leadership Index and the Emotional Intelligence Assessment. Contact Brain Basics to learn more.