What Is Post-Traumatic Growth?
Post-Traumatic Growth is the positive psychological change that some individuals experience after a life crisis or traumatic event. Post-traumatic growth doesn’t deny deep distress, but rather that adversity can unintentionally yield changes in understanding oneself, others, and the world. Post-traumatic growth can, in fact, co-exist with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The phenomenon was identified by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the 1990s. Based on their research, the pair described five categories of growth that occur over time: Survivors of trauma recognize and embrace new opportunities. They forge stronger relationships with loved ones as well as with victims who suffered in the same way. They cultivate inner strength through the knowledge that they have overcome tremendous hardship. They gain a deeper appreciation for life. And their relationship to religion and spirituality changes and evolves.
Post-traumatic growth goes above and beyond resilience. Rather than persevering through challenging circumstances, it represents the capacity to reflect, grow, and truly shift one’s perspective. Surviving a grueling battle with cancer, for example, may lead someone to quit their office job and devote their life to the fight against cancer. They may experience a new appreciation for life, commitment to their values, and connection to loved ones.
Not everyone who suffers trauma experiences post-traumatic growth, but for those who do, the changes can be lifelong. Evidence suggests that around half to two-thirds of trauma survivors experience post-traumatic growth. Certain characteristics make that outcome more likely: Those who experience post-traumatic growth are more likely to be women, adults at the time of the trauma, and embody the personality traits of openness to experience and extraversion.
How Valid Is the Concept of Post-Traumatic Growth?
Psychologists continue to explore and debate post-traumatic growth. Many studies have relied on the individual to report if and how they have changed, yet perceived growth and actual growth are not always aligned. (Some studies, however, incorporate interviews with family members to validate the changes.)
Some experts believe that post-traumatic growth is actually a coping mechanism to help survivors overcome their shattered worldview and sense of vulnerability. It may be an adaptive tool for revising the narrative of one’s life and returning to equilibrium—but not necessarily result in an improved outlook.