3 myths and facts about post-traumatic stress (PTS) and post-traumatic growth (PTG) that are crucial for military wellness, mental health, and resilience

You likely attended a briefing on post-traumatic stress (PTS) during your time in the military. This is good as post-traumatic stress can be an incredibly difficult experience, and getting help is a critical first step. But what do you know about post-traumatic growth (PTG)? Post-traumatic growth is the process of going through an extremely tough experience and coming back stronger with important lessons learned about life. Post-traumatic growth is a common human phenomenon across cultures and religions throughout time. Yet there are some common myths about post-traumatic stress and the possibility of experiencing post-traumatic growth that are important to know for Warfighters and those who support them.

Myth #1: You can experience post-traumatic stress or post-traumatic growth, but not both.

Fact: Post-traumatic stress is a normal experience when facing a trauma and often happens before you can  experience post-traumatic growth. When you experience trauma, a part of the normal human-stress response is to deeply reflect on what happened to help you learn from it and improve for future adversities. This might include flashbacks or not being able to let things go. This process can be painful, troubling, and require the help of therapy to navigate. But this does NOT mean you are damaged! In fact, this process is normal and can eventually lead to growth. Those who don’t have some symptoms of PTS are actually less likely to grow from the experience and instead just bounce back to who they were prior to the trauma. Growth occurs when the trauma you experienced becomes a turning point: That is, who you are after the experience is now better than who you were before. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress are part of that growing and changing process that enables you to transform.

Myth #2: If you haven’t experienced post-traumatic growth by now, you never will.

Fact: There’s no deadline to grow from trauma. You can experience post-traumatic growth 6 months or 10 years after a crisis. Further, you can continue to grow in additional ways even if you believe you’ve already grown from a specific trauma. The trauma is just the catalyst: Your deep reflection and rebuilding your beliefs and values lead to your growth. This can happen over many years and continue throughout your life. In fact, some researchers of post-traumatic growth expanded the definition of trauma to include any experience that shatters one’s worldview: core values and deeply held beliefs about themselves, others, or the world. So, whether it’s the death of a loved one, serious injury, painful breakup, or social isolation during a pandemic, the ongoing process of rebuilding your worldview better and stronger is what leads to your growth. This process can take a long time with many ups and downs along the way.

Myth #3: Experiencing post-traumatic growth means “happily ever after.”

Fact: Post-traumatic growth does mean who you are now is better and stronger in a meaningful way than who you were before the event. But it does NOT mean you’re perfect or that life will be perfect. You’ll still likely face hard times, make mistakes, and find more ways to grow. You might also go back to past behaviors or have troubling times thinking back on the trauma. Facing these types of challenges doesn’t mean you didn’t grow: It means you are human, complex, and still a work in progress. Use HPRC’s optimism self-check or gratitude calendar to help yourself continue to reflect, grow, and connect with the people and values you care most about.

To learn more and take a short survey to see how you might have experienced PTG from a recent crisis, read HPRC’s article on the 5 benefits of post-traumatic growth.


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References

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