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The Many Layers of Post-Traumatic Growth

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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.



Comments [8]

I'd like to add that I don't believe the trauma has to be physical, it can be emotional or psychological situational trauma as well. We can easily see and understand someone who has experienced physical trauma.   

Nov 20th, 2015 3:24pm

I've been searching for a name for what I am experiencing and I first heard it on a Ted Talks episode I watched on Netflix.  I had 3 years of therapy when I felt I was drowning in PTSD.  My situation remains challenging, but my reactions are so much stronger, wiser and healthier under duress that I amaze myself.  For one example, I was comparatively lazy pre-trauma, now I work out every morning (also demonstrating a self-discipline stronger than pre-trauma).  I am still triggered about twice a month to a degree where I have to step back and work to re-center ... but I am grateful for the unexpected blessing of Post-Traumatic Growth.

Mar 12th, 2015 6:14pm

Am 31 years old, I lost my young brother who was 27 years old in cluster bomb accident, what I remember of this moment when doctors told us that he passed away is that I was focusing on my parents to support them and prevent any collapse to mom and dad. I kept calm, my anger was like a flame, every time I got drunk I start crying and remembering him, after two years, now at the moment I am reading for the first time about posttraumatic growth, I can't describe how I am feeling, it's like am higher by one step than others, I can read the people's intentions ( I can understand my relatives more ) I feel spiritual feelings, I saw a dream of my brother came and gave me a bless, I don't know how to deal with this gift I need to make my future better. I had alot of psychological accidents but this time I found the core of my problems in pubirity all of my nodes are solved now.

Dec 22nd, 2014 5:19pm

A little over a year ago, I became confused and disoriented. It was first thought that I had a brain tumor (not the case). No matter, I eventually had major surgery, rehab, and I subsequently retired from work. My recover has continued and although I still have some short-term memory issues, etc., I am able to drive and function independently. Within months after being being discharged from the hospital and rehab center, I began to become aware of other significant changes within me. As I became more able to, I have been searching for answers as to what was going on with me? I recently started reading about post-traumatic gain and, for the first time since my illness, I now feel some real understanding about the changes I am experiencing. I also want to say, they are wonderful, exciting, and truly amazing!.

Dec 21st, 2014 6:48am

I have a TBI, it happened from a Motorcycle accident. TBI has me see things in a much different way I can't remember the accident or two months after the accident. I'm the person who falls and then get back up dust myself off, but not with the TBI. No one around me understand what's going on in my head. I'm trying hard to wait to heal in two- three year. Good news I'M ALIVE.

Jul 3rd, 2013 10:48am

This was a great article - it's wonderful to see how determination and a daily positive outlook can help any survivor to cope and exceed their expectations - especially if they are fortunate to in the company of other positive people. I see my 15 yr. old son who had a TBI and PTSD accomplishing more and more every day. I'm going to repost this article! Tina Sullivan

Jul 2nd, 2012 4:12pm

As the spouse of a TBI survivor that completed an Ironman, I can say for sure he would not have done it before the accident. LOVED this article and the positive message(s) along with it.

Jun 18th, 2012 9:52pm

Thank you for the excellent validation for those of us that have healed from PTSD and have moved into a new phase of our post traumatic growth. Now I hope that the broader insurance/medical community may FINALLY come to realize that PTSD is not a forever diagnosis...

Jun 18th, 2012 8:34pm


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