According to research on PTSD, 75 percent of people experience trauma at some point in their lives. While that number may seem jarring at first glance, consider this: Trauma isn't always followed by PTSD or even lengthy periods of anxiety and depression. Actually, a good number of people experience something called post-traumatic growth after a distressing life event.
The theory of post-traumatic growth was first developed by in the mid-1990s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D., and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D. When people experience post-traumatic growth, the psychological struggle following trauma doesn't have a negative outcome. Instead, it leads to a greater appreciation for life and a better understanding of themselves.
In an era when it's becoming clear that so many people—especially women—have experienced sexual trauma at some point in their lives, understanding how post-traumatic growth works is more important than ever. While you should absolutely seek professional help if you have experienced trauma, here's a guide to exactly what post-traumatic growth is and how to start the process of your own growth.
Consider the "trauma is a muscle" analogy.
To better understand exactly how post-traumatic growth works, Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love, suggests thinking of trauma like a muscle. "Muscles only build if they experience stress (like lifting weights) and are given time to rest," she explains. "Muscles break down a bit and then rebuild so they are stronger. Something similar can occur psychologically when we experience physical or psychological stress."
Who is naturally inclined to experience post-traumatic growth?
While anyone can experience post-traumatic growth, there are certain people who it comes more naturally to. "In my experience, the people who grow are those who have a spiritual outlook on life and see very challenging life events as an opportunity to learn and grow," says Margaret Paul, Ph.D., relationship expert and author. "Others get stuck in seeing themselves as victims, and from that victim place, there is no growth. The people who grow have the courage to face themselves and their pain and learn what they need to learn from it, while those who don’t often stay locked into anger and resentment and a 'why me' mentality."
Lombardo adds that extroverts tend to be more inclined to experience post-traumatic growth. "People who are more open to experiences and those who are extroverted are more likely to grow from traumatic events," she explains. "Regarding openness, people who are open are more likely to see different sides of an experience. So, yes, the event was traumatic. AND I now have a better appreciation for the little things in life. Extroverts may benefit because they are more likely to interact with others and can, thus, appreciate that support as well as hear other people’s takes on the trauma."
How to grow after a trauma.
If post-traumatic growth doesn't come naturally to you, Lombardo's first piece of advice is to acknowledge that a traumatic event is still a traumatic event. Just because you hope to grow from it doesn't mean you wanted the trauma in the first place. "This involves acceptance of what happened, which differs from wanting it to have happened," she says. "Without acceptance, the person is stuck wishing the event had not happened as opposed to focusing on 'OK, it happened. Now what can I do to make things better?'"
Once you're in that place, Lombardo suggests a writing exercise in which your journal on these questions:
- What do I appreciate now more than I did before?
- What did I learn from the experience? And how can I use this new knowledge to help myself and/or others?
- What positive interactions have I experienced (meeting new people, getting assistance from others)?
- What new opportunities or interests have evolved as a result of this experience?
A meditation for growth after trauma.
Sit down in a comfortable spot and prepare. It is good to light a candle or have a beautiful piece of art or religious iconography in front of you (it doesn't matter which, simply something very high in beauty).
Before beginning, use a prayer (a tool I call "asking," since I am not religious) to open up your heart to that part of you that doesn't exist on earth. That part of you that was never born and will never die. You know the part! The prayer or "asking" can sound like this:
"Universe within me and without me, please hold me as I take this journey into this very vulnerable place in my memory. Hold me and allow me to come out strong on the other side."
Then sit and meditate on the memory (choose one; do not visit every painful memory all at once). As you remember the incident of harm, trauma, and injustice, imagine yourself asking the person or situation that occurred to come and give you this opportunity to forgive. To come and give you this opportunity to have your heart broken, to be betrayed, to be shocked by the surprise of life.
Now visualize all the good qualities you have as a result of this trauma. Perhaps you are an achiever, perhaps you are a dreamer, perhaps you are a hard worker, perhaps you are more beautiful! I don't know which, but I am certain you gained both positive and negative traits from this terrible incident.
And then to the incident (whether it be person or accident etc.)., say these words with the minds eye: "I forgive you." Say this either in a whisper or internally five times. Then turn to yourself and forgive yourself for not forgiving this earlier. For spending sometimes many years hardened as a result of this incident.
Turn to yourself and say, "I allow myself to relax now. There is nothing more to do. I love you."
Say this five times in a whisper or internally.
Allow yourself as you sit and listen to beauty to remember who you really are. The real you can't be traumatized. The real you isn't subject to these worldly things.
While post-traumatic growth and resilience are the same thing, they do have similarities. Here are five things resilient people do differently.