“That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” Nietzsche
But is this really true? Are people actually stronger following a distressing life event?
In the aftermath of a traumatic experience some individuals sink into despair while others appear to blossom. The term “posttraumatic growth” (PTG) describes the latter process, when a person experiences psychological growth after – or while – dealing with a challenging life event. This does not mean that they do not struggle, but rather that they learn to grow from and reframe their experiences. Take for example survivors of serious illnesses, many of whom share that directly facing death gave them “a new lease on life.”
A similar phenomenon can be seen in the creation of the numerous organizations the spring up following a traumatic event, rather something individual like the loss of a loved one or something large-scale, like a natural disaster. Though the concept that suffering can cause positive change is thousands of years old, in the 1980s and 90s psychologists began to rigorously investigate growth resulting from traumatic experiences.
Researchers have suggested that PTG can be measured in 5 major domains:
- Greater appreciation of life and a changed sense of priorities
This includes altered ideas regarding what is important in life (e.g., career, family, friends), and a greater appreciation for one’s own life and, more specifically, for every day that one lives.
2. Warmer relationships with others
Following a traumatic event many report feeling closer to – and having increased compassion towards – people they come into contact with, and being more willing to share their own emotions with others. In addition, some people report putting more effort into their relationships in the wake of a traumatic experience, along with an increased ability to accept help and a new appreciation of how generous people can be.
3. A greater sense of personal strength
Whether through feelings of increased self-reliance and/or personal strength, or faith that one will be better able to get through – or accept – difficult times in the future.
4. Recognition of new opportunities
This can be seen through the development of new hobbies, a new career path, or simply by a person feeling that they will be more likely to change things that need changing.
5. Spiritual development
Some report that following a traumatic experience they possess a greater understanding of spiritual matters and/or have stronger religious beliefs.
Some question whether the signs of positive growth that many experience following a trauma are in fact long lasting. Today many researchers propose that there are different kinds of PTG, with some being more stable than others. For a great example of the varieties of PTG, consider the 2015 findings by METIV Research Director Ruth Pat-Horenczyk et al. who showed evidence for four different trajectories of PTG among breast cancer survivors over a two-year period. Some women displayed high levels of both PTG and distress, while others showed the exact opposite. Still others exhibited high levels of PTG and low levels of distress, with the opposite true for women in the fourth group. Intriguingly, women moved in and out of different PTG groups over the two years that the study was conducted, implying that the way a person experiences PTG changes over time. Though there is still more work to be done to better understand the complexities of PTG, the encouraging conceptualization of “bouncing forward” after a traumatic experience will likely see continued development in the years to come.
METIV’s researchers have published a number of articles on PTG including:
Pat-Horenczyk, R., Saltzman, L. Y., Araz, Y., Perry, S., Ginat-Frolich, R., & Stemmer, S. M. (in press, 2015). Stability and Transitions in Posttraumatic Growth Trajectories among Cancer Patients: LCA and LTA Analyses. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy.
Pat-Horenczyk, R., Perry, S., Hamama-Raz, Y., Ziv, Y., Schramm-Yavin, S., Stemmer, S.M. (2015). Posttraumatic Growth in Breast Cancer Survivors: Constructive and Illusory Processes. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 28(3), 214-222.
Pat-Horenczyk, R., and Brom, D. (2007). The multiple faces of post traumatic growth. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 56 (3), 379-385.