Loss and trauma are part of life. Many people have heard of post-traumatic stress (PTS), a normal response to an awful experience, but not many recognize the struggles and hardships of trauma also can mean opportunities for growth. Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a positive change you can experience as a result of your struggle with a highly challenging life event. In fact, it’s just as common as experiencing PTS. The benefits of post-traumatic growth are stronger relationships, greater awareness of new possibilities, increased personal strength, spiritual enhancement, and deeper appreciation for life. Post-traumatic growth is when you might not wish what you experienced on your worst enemy, but you value how it has resulted in who you are now—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually stronger. You find a “new normal” that’s different in a positive way.
What causes post-traumatic growth?
Post-traumatic growth can occur after experiences that most would consider traumatic such as cancer, terrorism, sexual assault, natural disasters, car crashes, or combat. However, PTG can occur from any experience that challenges your core values and beliefs about the world: what you’re capable of, the nature of the world, the nature of others, your philosophy about life, goals, etc. This can include living through a pandemic, a period of social isolation, or watching disturbing events on the news.
Have I experienced post-traumatic growth?
Use this self-reflection survey adapted from the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory to reflect on if you have experienced the benefits of post-traumatic growth from a recent crisis you faced.
- Stronger relationships. Traumatic events often allow you to discover the care and concern others might be willing to show during your recovery. Many people report experiencing growth and improvement in their relationships. Accepting support from others, reaching out for help, expressing emotions, and learning you can count on others during times of trouble all serve to strengthen the connection you might feel to those around you. How much do you agree with the following statements?
- I feel closer to those who matter to me.
- I learned a great deal about how wonderful people are.
- Awareness of new possibilities. Sometimes trauma closes the door to goals that people set out to accomplish. In having to reestablish priorities and identify new goals for their lives, some can see new pathways and possibilities they never knew existed. How much do you agree with the following statements?
- I can do better things with my life.
- I established a new path for my life.
- Increased personal strength. When people experience trauma, they often find opportunities to learn more about how to manage hard situations, which can result in discovering strengths they might never have imagined. How much do you agree with the following statements?
- I know that I can better handle difficulties.
- I discovered that I’m stronger than I thought I was.
- Spiritual enhancement. Trauma is often accompanied by your efforts to make sense of what and why things happened. The process of struggling to adjust your worldview can lead to greater clarity about life’s meaning and purpose. Those who experience trauma also might develop a deeper sense of connection to something larger than themselves, whether spiritual or religious in nature or just the world as a whole. How much do you agree with the following statements?
- I better understand spiritual matters.
- I have a stronger religious faith.
- Greater appreciation for life. Trauma often threatens what people value most in their lives, and the recovery process can result in a greater sense of gratitude for things that often go unnoticed. Trauma might shift your priorities and increase your appreciation for the value of life as well as the everyday things you otherwise take for granted. How much do you agree with the following statements?
- I changed my priorities about what’s important in life.
- I have a greater appreciation for the value of my own life.
Misconceptions about PTG
Trauma and growth often go hand in hand: Struggle creates opportunities where people can gain strength and perspective, which then results in growth. In other words, you don’t either feel stress or growth from trauma, but both. The experiences of PTG and PTS aren’t mutually exclusive. And growth doesn’t only happen for the resilient ones. It’s a misunderstanding to think only the weak experience struggles while the strong experience growth. In fact, when you have more coping skills to start with, you might not experience as much growth. That is, those who are more resilient at the start might have fewer chances than others to see those changes happen.
Understanding trauma is a part of life doesn’t make traumatic events any less distressing or surprising. Nobody wants to experience trauma. But if it happens, remember it doesn’t have to mean negative consequences. There might be an opportunity for you to come out the other side—changed for the better.