Post-Traumatic Growth Might Be the Silver Lining of Trauma — Here’s How to Harness It

Some people experience growth after hardships

A person leans back against a tree with their eyes closed.
Photo: Motoki Tonn/Unsplash

Though the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) wasn’t officially added to the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-3) until 1980, psychologists have known about the very tangible negative physical and psychological consequences of trauma for centuries.

Accounts of trauma date back to the Civil War and earlier, and current events such as the coronavirus pandemic continue to give rise to traumatic times. About half of Americans say the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, per a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, and experts say that issues like getting kids back to school, paying rent, or taking care of parents can extend the trauma people feel from the pandemic, upping the likelihood of mental illness.

“I think for most Americans, Covid-19 is likely a major life event stressor, increasing our anxiety and depression due to fear of catching the virus, upheaval of routines, loss of pleasurable activities and social connections, uncertainty about when this will end, loss of jobs and housing, and general economic impact,” explains Joan Cook, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. “Some Americans — like those who lost loved ones, those who were infected, those who are in health care, or other essential workers — get a greater dose of the stress of Covid, likely crossing into what we think of as the big ‘T’ trauma.”

“Trauma is about loss and people who are already vulnerable may be more susceptible to loss through this,” adds Jane Shakespeare-Finch, PhD, a professor at the school of psychology and counseling at Queensland University of Technology. That means that while experts aren’t generally seeing PTSD in the “average” American, it is entirely possible to experience trauma from the pandemic if you’re not an essential worker, if you haven’t had Covid, and if no one in your family has died from it.

And while the costs of trauma are well-studied, the idea that some good could come out of even the most traumatic hardships has remained far less understood throughout the years.

It wasn’t until 1995, after analyzing those who had experienced significant negative life events, that two psychologists gave this concept of positive growth after struggle a name: post-traumatic growth (PTG). The idea: After struggling with a major life crisis or traumatic event, it is indeed possible to experience positive growth.

In order to experience post-traumatic growth, the set of circumstances you face needs to seriously challenge your understanding of the world and your place in it.

From there, a new body of literature exploded and researchers, psychologists, and scholars alike started to ponder: What good could come out of our darkest times — and how is this kind of growth possible?

What is PTG?

According to pioneers of the theory at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, PTG is a positive change experienced because of a struggle with a life crisis or traumatic event. This kind of positive change and growth tends to occur in one of five different areas, experts say: how you relate to others, embracing new possibilities, personal strength, spiritual change, and a newfound appreciation of life.

In order to experience PTG, the set of circumstances you face needs to seriously challenge your understanding of the world and your place in it, explains Lawrence G. Calhoun, PhD, a psychologist at Posttraumatic Growth Research Center at UNC Charlotte and one of the pioneers of the theory.

The theory has been studied in a whole slew of different populations, from bereaved parents and emergency workers to sexual assault survivors.

Some research suggests the likelihood of experiencing PTG depends on the type and intensity of trauma, explains Cook. Take one study published in the Journal of Loss and Trauma: It found that people who experienced bereavement reported higher levels of growth than survivors of sexual abuse and car accidents. (Sexual abuse survivors also had higher levels of PTSD symptoms than the other groups.)

Experts aren’t quite sure why PTG might be easier to come by after some traumas versus others, but it likely has to do with a variety of different factors, including dose, duration, and type of the trauma you experience, access to social support, and more.

“In general, the greater the dose, the longer the duration, and traumas of an interpersonal nature typically pack the biggest mental health wallop,” says Cook. “It doesn’t mean PTG isn’t possible for these folks, but it may mean it might be harder or take longer for them to reach that level or that they may need additional support or resources to get there.”

Resilience is the bounce back and post-traumatic growth is the transformation.

For those who experience PTG, there tends to be an overarching theme: “The trauma shatters previously held ideas, overwhelms your initial capacity to cope, and you literally need to reconstruct a new narrative with that experience as part of your life,” explains Shakespeare-Finch. Say you have a loved one in the hospital who you’re not allowed to visit or have not been able to attend funerals, or pay your rent — or maybe you’re simply living in a constant state of uncertainty. “We usually hold assumptions like the world being a benevolent place, that good things happen to good people,” she says. “It gives us a sense of safety. For many people, the illusion of safety has been shattered.”

There’s an important distinction to be made here, too: PTG is not the same as resilience.

“Resilience means the person can psychologically resist or bounce back from a highly negative event,” says Calhoun. “PTG refers to change that occurs from the struggle that goes beyond what was the case before that struggle.”

In short? Resilience is the bounce back and PTG is the transformation.

The benefits of PTG

For people who experience it, PTG is a benefit in and of itself, explains Calhoun. (If you feel that your life has more meaning after a trauma than before one, there’s power in that, right?)

But there are likely other upsides. People who experience PTG also talk about living a more value-driven life, says Cook, with more of a focus on the things that truly matter to them. There’s also some indication that PTG might be mildly associated with greater happiness, Calhoun notes.

Of course, others are quick to point out that much of what we know about PTG is through people’s self-reports; it’s hard to measure the benefits. “The literature that talks about post-traumatic growth is really about people’s perceptions,” explains Crystal Park, PhD, a professor at the University of Connecticut who studies the phenomenon of stress-related growth. And when you try to match those perceptions to actual positive changes, there’s not always a correlation, she says.

It’s also important to note that if you experience PTG, growth doesn’t replace pain. “It would be a mistake to assume that experiencing PTG takes away the psychological distress that most people feel in the aftermath of a highly stressful event or of a major loss,” says Calhoun.

“Trauma is always going to be there,” adds Cook. Though with issues such as PTSD, for example, through proper treatment, you can find ways to live with and revisit pain without having it reign supreme, she says.

And while some aspects of PTG (if it happens — it’s not a given) may be subconscious, many believe it’s conscious effort that gets you there. “It’s a deliberative, intentional process,” says Cook.

Here, three ways to potentially pave the path for growth if you feel as though the Covid-19 pandemic has been traumatic for you.

Reframe your experience. Take time to think about what you went through to see if there have been any changes that you might view as positive growth. For example, you could journal about the five different areas of growth (how you relate to others, new possibilities, personal strength, spiritual change, or a newfound appreciation of life), noting the ways you’ve been struggling, where you might be able to notice beauty, and what opportunities you have to make change. This type of work can be a pathway to PTG, notes Cook, since it provides a chance for the reflective contemplation required for PTG.

Take your emotional temperature. Sneaking in enough (at least a few) feel-good activities throughout the day is easier said than done, but finding new ways to engage in pleasurable pursuits can help you create opportunities for growth — a facet of PTG, says Cook. Start small by just making time for one thing you enjoy every day, even if it’s a cup of coffee or a morning run, and build from there.

Seek social support. Social connectivity has strong neurobiological roots. A lack of social connection has been shown to have serious negative impacts on both physical health (links to issues like higher blood pressure or increased risk of chronic disease) and mental well-being, with risks even being comparable to smoking. In fact, brain fMRI scans even show brain differences between those who are socially isolated and those who are not. Social support can be a buffer, to some extent, for stressors. “Individuals who are more connected to one another may find themselves stronger after hardship,” explains Deborah Marin, MD, director of the Center for Stress, Resilience, and Personal Growth at Mount Sinai.

Social support can also be predictive of both PTSD and PTG in different ways: If you have good social support, you might be more likely to experience PTG; if you don’t have good social support, you might be more likely to experience PTSD, says Cook. Social connectedness can look different for everyone, too. You might turn to a spiritual community, family, friends, or even just one person whom you can talk to honestly and openly. Reach out to help others, too: Some research finds that when people who have gone through trauma find ways to give back and help others move forward in their pain, they feel a greater purpose in the world — a piece of that PTG puzzle, explains Cook.

Practice facing your fears in small doses. Exposure therapy is a form of treatment that works by slowly exposing people to the things they fear in a safe environment so that, over time, they are less likely to avoid fears. “We’re biologically built to be a fearful species, but when you avoid your fears and push them down, it doesn’t help you learn to manage the fear,” explains Marin. In cases of PTSD specifically, avoiding traumatic memories can become a learned response, furthering symptoms and contributing to unhealthy coping strategies.

Of course, this comes with one very large caveat: If you have PTSD, for example, exposure therapy is best practiced first in a safe setting with a therapist who can help with your particular situation when the time is right.

Allowing yourself to feel your feelings in doses (meditating on your hardship or writing in a journal about everything you’ve been feeling, perhaps) can help you experience the pain (instead of avoiding it), choose healthy coping strategies, and eventually lay the foundation for the contemplation you need to get to PTG, explains Cook. This could eventually lead you to change your priorities about what is important in life (maybe you decide to leave the corporate world and work in a nonprofit or start volunteering), says Cook.

But in the long run, when you learn to recognize fears, sit with them, and effectively manage them, you also learn that you can be both resilient and anxious or resilient and fearful. From there, reminding yourself of the ways you’ve overcome challenges in the past can help you recognize personal strength, notes Shakespeare-Finch, ultimately fueling growth.

Cassie Shortsleeve is a Boston-based writer. Her work has been published in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Shape, + other publications. Follow her @cshortsleeve.

Get the Medium app