Turning the Tables on Trauma

A brief look at growing in the aftermath of an ordeal.

Posted Dec 12, 2016

This post was co-authored with Katrina Borg of James Madison University.

I’ve always been interested in trauma and how it affects people. Based on news headlines and movie plots, it seems that others are interested in it as well. Recently, while looking at research on phenomena such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and resilience, I stumbled onto “posttraumatic growth”. This seemingly oxymoronic phrase is the focus of ongoing research that may tell us how to move trauma therapy beyond only negating damage and – surprisingly – into the realm of the positive.

What is Posttraumatic Growth?

Posttraumatic growth encompasses how some individuals make positive lifestyle changes or feel as though they have better overall well-being after dealing with a trauma, though this is not true of every person who experiences a trauma and does not mean other outcomes are wrong. Theory and research in this area emerged around the 1990s, in tandem with psychology’s shift in focus toward human strengths. Tedeschi and Calhoun devised the current model of posttraumatic growth, which has five dimensions, or areas of change.

1. Appreciation for Life. People who experience growth in this domain may re-assess their priorities, feel a greater sense of thankfulness, and take pleasure from small, everyday things.

2. Relationships with Others. After a traumatic experience, people may reevaluate the kinds of bonds they have with friends and family. This can mean becoming closer and more connected to some people and also cutting ties with others.

3. Personal Strength. This third domain describes a change in people’s perception of being able to handle challenges. They may believe that, having now contended with a traumatic event, they will be able to contend with other challenges in the future.

4. New Possibilities. Growth in this area entails people recognizing different paths or opportunities in their life. They may change careers or pursue an activity they had previously been hesitant to try.

5. Spiritual Growth. Although “spiritual” is in the name of this final dimension, it actually encompasses a variety of existential concerns people may ponder. Some people may find or become more involved in religion, while others may explore questions about the purpose of life or the existence of fate.

How Does Posttraumatic Growth Happen?

According to Tedeschi and Calhoun’s theory, a person must reach a certain level of unpleasant or negative experience in order for growth to occur, and the impetus for growth is how trauma impacts a person’s subjective understanding of the world. Research seems to support the proposed process as multiple studies have found the degree of core belief challenge to be the best predictor of posttraumatic growth. The following visualization exercise, adapted from Tedeschi and Calhoun’s earthquake metaphor, will help explain how this works.

Picture your neighborhood. It represents your assumptive world, which refers to how we see the world and our place in it. Disruption or damage to the assumptive world is called core belief challenge. Imagine what your neighborhood would look like after a minor earthquake. There may be some superficial damage, but the foundations and roads still stand. Nothing has drastically changed. This represents a low level of negative experience and core belief challenge, and little to no posttraumatic growth.

Now imagine what your neighborhood would look like after a major quake. Entire buildings are lopsided and there may be cracks in the roads or fallen trees. This level of damage will take time and energy to repair, but you could also make some improvements. You could change the layout, or build new things, or make the broken parts sturdier than before. This represents a higher level of distress and core belief challenge, and more of an opportunity for posttraumatic growth.

The Takeaway

It’s important to keep in mind that experiencing posttraumatic growth does not diminish the suffering caused by trauma. This process does not apply to all trauma survivors, nor is it the most desirable outcome in all cases. In other words, posttraumatic growth is neither a magic bullet for undoing trauma nor the pinnacle of trauma outcomes. What is there to get excited about, then? Well, the future.

Widespread applications of this concept remain on the horizon. Current research into posttraumatic growth is aimed at identifying more of the mechanisms behind the process, as well as exploring relationships between growth and other variables of interest. One proposed study of a growth-focused veteran’s retreat may even allow researchers to look at causality. As researchers discover more about how posttraumatic growth works, we can begin to apply this knowledge to help foster flourishing.