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The Many Layers of Post-Traumatic Growth
Psychologist Richard Tedeschi shares his research and insight into the concept of growth as a potential consequence of grappling with trauma.
In the past decade due to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the term post-traumatic stress disorder has become the focus of countless headlines and has entered the collective conscience. But it is far from a new concept. During previous wars in history, the term for PTSD was known as soldier’s heart, shell shock, battle fatigue, and war neurosis, among others. As ancient, is its flipside: post-traumatic growth.
The term was coined in 1995 by Richard Tedeschi, PhD and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD to focus on the idea of growth as a potential consequence of grappling with trauma. There have always been people who, faced with a major life crisis or trauma, have been able to use that opportunity to make positive, meaningful change.
BrainLine talked with Dr. Tedeschi about post-traumatic growth, why some people seem to experience it while others don’t, and how it can help transform a person’s life into something far better than ever imagined. A psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, Dr. Tedeschi is a researcher and a clinician.
BrainLine: What is post-traumatic growth, exactly?
Richard Tedeschi: The term post-traumatic growth (PTG) has been defined as the experience of positive change resulting from the struggle with major life crises. The concept is, of course, ancient and has been prevalent in the literature, philosophy, and religion of almost all cultures.
It’s important to note that we’re not talking about the traumatic event itself, but how the event becomes a catalyst for positive change. PTG is the process after the traumatic event.
BL: Why did the topic interest you in the first place?
RT: Lawrence Calhoun and I, both at UNC, decided we wanted to study wise people, resilient people. Maybe we’d learn something about ourselves in the process, right? We started interviewing survivors of severe injuries, people who had survived something physical or emotional in their adult life like a brain injury, blindness, paralysis, or being held as a prisoner of war (POW). Over and over, we heard how people and their families were deeply saddened by the losses and changes, but nevertheless, the experience had changed them for the better.
BL: In what parts of people’s lives does PTG tend to emerge after a trauma?
RT: While studying the concept of PTG over many years, Lawrence Calhoun and I established five domains in which PTG can arise most prevalently. We did this by statistical analysis; basically, conducting a series of interviews with survivors of severe injuries. As we heard about the changes these people went through after their life crisis, we created general statements and the following areas, or domains, emerged:
- new opportunities or possibilities in life
- increased sense of personal strength
- change in relationships with others
- greater appreciation for life in general
- deepening of spiritual life
Some of the statements included sentiments like “I realize the importance of being present in daily living”; “I have more compassion for others; I’m more open”; “I can accept help from others more easily”; and “I can do things I hadn’t considered before.”
BL: Is there a certain type of person who is more prone than others to experience PTG?
RT: I’d say the type of people who may tend to experience PTG are those who would actively approach difficulty rather an avoid it. Someone who is open to change, open to the novelty and serendipity of life. People who can accept that bad things happen, that they can no longer do certain things, but who focus on engaging in the things that they can still do. And people who are open to new opportunities … possibilities and choices that may not have presented themselves before the tragedy.
BL: Why do some people emphasize what they have lost while others take that loss and turn it into a gain or opportunity?
RT: I know this sounds counterintuitive, but people who were less resilient before their tragedy tend to be more open to PTG. If someone is already resilient, he doesn’t need to change so drastically. PTG involves big change.
BL: People must experience some negative feelings and positive feelings after a trauma. How does this ambivalence manifest itself? Do you work to help the person get rid of the negative feelings and only work on the positive, or to see a yin-yang-type balance?
RT: To move toward PTG, you have to go through a phase of intense reflection. A person has to get through the emotional pain following a serious injury or trauma, a phase that is necessary but is non-productive in moving forward. Once dealing with the feelings of loss, anger, and other emotional pain is done, a person can then reflect and begin to let in opportunities for change and growth. A lot of this process depends on the type of support a person receives. If you are surrounded by loving people who are encouraging change and reflection, you will be in a better spot to grow than if you are surrounded by people who are naysayers to your ideas of how you might want to change and grow.
Most people who have traumatic events don’t get professional psychological help. They may instead rely on family and friends, or community. And again, the attitude and support of those people will play a huge role in a person’s ability to grow post-tragedy.
If a person does seek the help of someone like me, I will ask the person to tell me the story of what happened — how he got his brain injury, or how he became a quadriplegic. From there, we will work on tools to deal with non-constructive emotions like anger or self-pity. I will help the person get to a point where he is open to new opportunities, to new ways of seeing and living in the world. This is called expert companionship.