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Tempered by Fire

An introduction to the concept of post-traumatic growth.

We’d like you to do a quick thought experiment. Think of the five most important things that have happened in your life. Don’t censor what comes to mind, just let them present themselves no matter how major or minor they seem.

Now review those incidents. Do any of them reflect a difficult, troubling, or even traumatic set of circumstances? If yes, think about them as you read on about the human experience with major life crises.

Life crises are seismic events. Just like earthquakes, they shake, or sometimes even destroy, the foundations of our lives. Some of us have fairly well thought out ways of understanding the world before traumatic events happen, and some of us may be forced by circumstance to think about matters we never did before. That confrontation with what has happened and our attempts to try to make some sense out of it are key factors that make events traumatic.

Most of us are familiar with the negative consequences of trauma. Highly stressful events lead most people to experience a variety of distressing reactions, including intrusive thoughts and feelings, fear, sadness, apprehension, and perhaps even some physical troubles. Most people eventually tend to bounce back, but a few may experience more serious consequences like posttraumatic stress disorder. Most of us have heard about all this. Perhaps less familiar is the possibility that the struggle with very difficult situations can also offer the possibility for psychological growth.

Stacey Kramer, in her TED talk about dealing with her brain tumor, described it as a gift, saying it was “the best thing that ever happened to me.” A man we call Jerry, whom we interviewed many years ago, said very much the same thing about the accident that made him a paraplegic. He said that if he had the power to undo the accident, he would not want to go back to the way he was before, because having to deal with it made him a much better person.

The voices of Stacey and Jerry reflect what is found in ancient myths, religious texts, and literature—the struggle with very challenging situations can change some people for the better. Surprisingly, it is only in recent years that psychologists and other scholars have focused systematic attention on this phenomenon—on what we have called posttraumatic growth.

Research findings, including our own work with our colleague Arnie Cann at UNC Charlotte, have identified the key elements of growth arising from the struggle with adversity. These five areas of posttraumatic growth that people have reported to us are:

  1. Changes in how they relate to other people
  2. Recognition of new opportunities, priorities or pathways in life
  3. Greater appreciation for the value of one’s own life, and life in general
  4. Recognition of one’s own strength
  5. Spiritual or existential development

In future blog posts, we will examine these elements, how posttraumatic growth comes about, we’ll our measure called The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory, and we will dig more deeply into the life experiences of people who have experienced posttraumatic growth. We will explore answers to the question: what value might there be in considering the possibility of growth in the aftermath of suffering?

Based on what you have read, you may reconsider some of the major life events that you thought about as you started to read this blog. Perhaps you might have begun to consider that in the aftermath of these events, something valuable emerged in your life. If you would like to share some of this with us, see our research website at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

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