"Something's wrong with me, Doc. Ever since my truck was hit with that IED, I don't seem myself anymore. I'm getting along better with people and my views about things have changed. I actually seem happier. I thought things like this were supposed to mess you up. Am I crazy?"
The words above came from a service member that I was working with during my first tour in Iraq. My response to him was ‘No, you are not crazy."
Being reminded of life and death every day and being exposed to traumatic experiences can alter how a person views the world. Not only does the way one sees themselves and others change, but the rules of life change. Having your worldview turned upside down can be a hard philosophical pill to swallow, even when the change is positive.
Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) is a concept that is currently receiving much attention in the military mental health community. PTG is a scientific and philosophical approach to understanding the positive changes that occur in individuals after being exposed to a traumatic experience.
In the past, trauma has been viewed as a cause of psychological dysfunction. However, research shows that not all people develop sustained psychological problems after trauma. Actually, most people don't. Furthermore, for quite some time, experts have been aware that some individuals actually become emotionally and socially healthier after exposure to trauma. Why does this happen?
PTG has been compared to a sort of psychological earthquake. Just as a building's foundation can shift from an earthquake, how a person views and interprets the world can be shaken from a traumatic or series of traumatic events. Previously held negative beliefs are disposed of and more positive ones take their place. For example, after narrowly escaping serious injury or death, a service member who hates his life may adopt the worldview that "Life is precious and I should be thankful for each day I have on Earth." A service member that loses a best friend to a Humvee rollover accident develops a new belief such as, "Loved ones can leave this world at any moment. It's important to spend as much time with them as you can."
It's important to realize that our thoughts and how we perceive events have a significant impact on how we feel and behave. To steal from the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus, "It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters."
Don't get me wrong. Overcoming trauma is not as simple as being positive or thinking good thoughts. There are many more factors involved such as personality traits, level of support from family and friends, and previous psychological health.
Always remember that if you experience a traumatic event, you are not destined to become "messed up" for the rest of your life. As a psychologist, I have seen humans overcome incredible hardships and tragedies. And yes, in more than a few cases, I have seen men and women like the service member above develop a more rewarding and fulfilling life.
"Edited version was published in my column "Kevlar for the Mind" published by "Military Times."