‘Suffering is universal: you attempt to subvert it so that it does not have a destructive, negative effect. You turn it around so that it becomes a creative, positive force.’ Those are the words of Terry Waite who survived four years in solitary confinement, chained, beaten and subject to mock execution.
Interest in how trauma can be a catalyst for positive changes began to take hold during the mid 1990’s when the term posttraumatic growth was introduced by two pioneering scholars Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun.
The term posttraumatic growth proved to be popular and has since developed into one of the flagship topics for positive psychology.
In my book What Doesn't Kill Us I describe how after experiencing a traumatic event, people often report three ways in which their psychological functioning increases:
1. Relationships are enhanced in some way. For example, people describe that they come to value their friends and family more, feel an increased sense of compassion for others and a longing for more intimate relationships.
2. People change their views of themselves in some way. For example, developing in wisdom, personal strength and gratitude, perhaps coupled with a greater acceptance of their vulnerabilities and limitations.
3. People describe changes in their life philosophy. For example, finding a fresh appreciation for each new day and re-evaluating their understanding of what really matters in life, becoming less materialistic and more able to live in the present.
Importantly, and this just can’t be emphasised enough, this does not mean that trauma is not also destructive and distressing. No one welcomes adversity. But the research evidence shows us that over time people can find benefits in their struggle with adversity. Indeed, across a large number of studies of people who have experienced a wide range of negative events, estimates are that between 30 and 70% typically report some form of positive change
We can all use this knowledge to help us cope when adversity does strike, be it bereavement, accident or illness. We can seek to live more wisely in the aftermath of adversity and as the opening quote says, subvert suffering.
To find out more about my book on posttraumatic growth: http://www.profstephenjoseph.com