Cultivating meaning, resiliency and growth after trauma
Updated: Aug 15, 2021
It is said that trauma is a nightmare that happens while we are wide awake. To overcome it takes tremendous effort, awareness and perseverance. While we almost always prefer harmony over hardship, there are many virtues associated with adversity, revealing trauma’s transformative power to be a catalyst for growth and resiliency. Overwhelmingly, our response to trauma can make the difference between giving up and carrying on with persistence, confidence and determination. Such attitudes help make meaning out of senseless violence and suffering, as well as uncover new-found capacity for dignity, grace, resiliency and growth.
In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.
- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
The potential for growth after trauma has been observed for as long as humans have been suffering – which is to say, always. It is a theme that is found woven throughout mythology, religious texts, philosophy, and stories handed down through generations.
Growth after trauma
Overwhelmingly, research reveals that resilience—the ability to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning after experiencing a highly life-threatening or traumatic event—is the rule, rather than the exception. In fact, many who experience trauma—such as being diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness, loss of a loved one, or experiencing sexual assault—not only show incredible resilience, but actually thrive in the aftermath of the traumatic event.
Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a school of thought that explores the potential for positive transformation following trauma. Introduced by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s, it argues that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity and trauma can often see positive growth afterwards. PTG can be thought of as a "visionary change" where the emotional distress that follows painful trauma can be more empowering than self-debilitating.
Such growth occurs post-trauma as people develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have, and a better understanding of how to live life. It often changes the way we perceive the world and define our life, relationships, money, success and health. It encourages personal growth that helps to redirect / transform our pain into something useful for us.
Seven areas of growth are generally recognized to spring from adversity:
Greater appreciation of life
Greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships
Increased compassion and altruism
Identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life
Greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths
Enhanced spiritual development
Undoubtedly, trauma can turn our world upside-down and force us to reconsider cherished goals and dreams. It can feel like an earthquake, shattering our once stable worldview. Nevertheless, most people who experience post-traumatic growth are often surprised by the growth that does occur, which often comes unexpectedly as the result of trying to make sense of an unfathomable event. In recent years, there has been a growing appreciation that such a “psychologically seismic” restructuring is actually necessary for any significant growth to occur. It is precisely when the foundational structure of the self is shaken that we are in the best position to pursue new opportunities in our lives. As Austrian Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
A key factor that allows us to turn adversity into advantage is the extent to which we fully explore our thoughts and feelings surrounding the event. Cognitive exploration—which can be defined as a general openness to new information—enables us to be curious about confusing situations, increasing the likelihood that we will find new meaning in the seemingly incomprehensible. To be sure, many of the steps that lead to growth after trauma go against our natural inclinations to avoid extremely uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. However, it’s only through shedding our natural defense mechanisms and approaching the discomfort head on, viewing everything as fodder for growth, that we can start to embrace the inevitable paradoxes of life and come to a more nuanced view of reality. By leaning into psychological flexibility, we face the world with exploration and openness and are better able to react to events in the service of our chosen values.
After a traumatic event, whether a violent incident, serious illness, or loss of a loved one, it’s natural to feel stuck on the event, constantly thinking about what happened, replaying our thoughts and feelings over and over. In fact, rumination is often a sign that we are working hard to make sense of what has happened and are actively tearing down old belief systems and creating new structures of meaning and identity.
Studies indicate how PTG ultimately prompts higher-order thoughts, beliefs, and actions that initiate a reduction of emotional distress:
It generates multidimensional changes in our beliefs, goals and self-identity
It is constructive and mindful, helping us stay grounded and focused on what is happening now rather than dwelling in the past
It is value-oriented, changing the way we look at life altogether
It is goal-oriented, helping us stay focused on positive aims and higher goals
It is mind-opening, changing our reasoning and judgmental qualities
It is tied in with self-dependence and self-healing, generating transformation that make us more self-reliant and solution-focused
Transformative power of illness
We are all stronger than we think and more creative than we ever imagined. And sometimes, paradoxically, these strengths appear during times of our greatest weakness—when we are sick. Although illness can feel like an impassible barrier, it can also be the doorway to a new and more creative existence. When this happens, illness becomes transforming, turning life’s most difficult challenges into our greatest potential for creativity and growth.
Indeed, there is a long list of eminent artists who have suffered from traumatic physical illness that drove them to abandon old habits, embrace disequilibrium, and generate alternative strategies to reach new heights in creativity. Such transforming illness altered the lives of Leonardo da Vinci, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, and many other artists. Illness shaped their work and their masterpieces changed our world. Rather than stopping them, debilitating illness proved to be the catalyst that inspired them to greatness.
Post-traumatic growth manifests in different ways—sometimes as selfless help to others or occasionally as genuine self-understanding and acceptance. No matter how post-traumatic growth reveals itself, or which aspect of life it may impact, the positive shift of energy reflects will change our identity as a whole.
Importantly, it takes time and immense struggle to truly change after a trauma. Initially, we are likely to feel overwhelmed by myriad difficult emotions. With time, and conscious attention to the recovery process, we can begin to shift our perspective from “I am the victim” to “I am a survivor” and build new-found resilience to move forward in life.