5 Ways People Can Grow After Trauma

Trauma has many negative effects, yet some people find meaning. Here’s how.

Posted Jul 14, 2019

"We all know people who garner a great sense of meaning even in the most unpleasant circumstances. …Their pain is real; their sense of doing something truly meaningful is substantial. They demonstrate how our ingrained desire to believe that our lives have purpose beyond our life span drives us to work extra hard, even to the point of personal suffering, in order to gain more meaning.      —Dan Ariely

Julian Santa Ana, Unsplash
Researchers estimate that about one-half to two-thirds of people who experience trauma, also experience some areas of growth.
Source: Julian Santa Ana, Unsplash

In one of his books on motivation, psychologist Dan Ariely highlights how struggle breeds empathy.  Ariely burned over 70 percent of his body during an accident as a teenager. He endured incredible pain for years including surgeries and skin treatments. Several years after the accident, he heard from a distraught mother whose two sons were badly burned in a car crash. One had passed away, but the mother wanted Ariely to give advice to her other teenage son, who was still enduring agony at the hospital. 

Ariely didn’t know what to do. Remembering his own experience caused him to relive the trauma all over again. Entering the hospital was triggering. Giving words of encouragement felt empty.

He decided that despite the horrors that came from reflecting on his experience, he would do his best to help. The teen’s mother told Ariely how meaningful his letters and visits were to her son, and they have corresponded ever since. Though Ariely wasn’t necessarily experiencing “happiness” in helping the burned boy, he did it anyway.

Ariely writes:

I achieved a complex but unique emotional lift that stemmed from shared pain. I became motivated by a feeling of identification and empathy for them. I felt that my own suffering had not been pointless. And that I could do something to help other human beings—something that I’m uniquely qualified to do.

The trauma that Ariely experienced led him to compassionately aid a young man with a similar tragedy.

Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash
Those who grow from trauma reevaluate their priorities in life. Many come away with a stronger appreciation for each day.
Source: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

Now contrast that with a recent encounter I had. Outside of a large department store, I was collecting school supplies for refugee children in my state. As each customer entered, I greeted them with a request to donate items to, what I deemed, a worthy cause. 

One man handed me a dollar and said, “Now tell them to go back where they came from.”  I laughed, assuming he was joking since he had donated, and going back meant certain death for many of them. He looked more seriously at me and confessed his own struggles. He felt it unfair for refugees to be freely given aid when he had had to work extremely hard to provide for his family. He had a tone of bitterness and anger.

Why had Ariely grown more empathetic from struggle, while the man complaining about resource-sucking immigrants had not? Both this man and the refugees I strived to help had yearned for the safety of their family. Both had struggled to provide for the needs of the ones they loved. 

Researchers estimate that about one-half to two-thirds of people who experience trauma also experience some areas of growth. This is referred to as post-traumatic growth. 

Five factors are often seen in people who grow from trauma:

  1. A new appreciation for life.  Those who grow from trauma reevaluate their priorities in life.  Many come away with a stronger appreciation for each day and value their own life.
  2. Strengthened relationships with others.  After trauma, many find out who they can count on and their closeness to others increases.  Their compassion grows as they become more accepting of help and value friendships.
  3. An openness to new possibilities.  Many people establish new interests and life pathways after trauma.  They readily seize new opportunities and adjust when needed.  Their feelings of self-efficacy blossom.
  4. Recognized personal strength.  Following a traumatic experience, there may be an amplified feeling of self-reliance.  Many better understand that they can handle difficult things and discover that they are stronger than they thought.  They also become more accepting of the way things work out.
  5. Spiritual rebirth.  Growth from trauma may also include a better understanding of spiritual matters. Many build a stronger religious faith.

In a 2019 conference for working moms, Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University, gave an inspiring speech encouraging women to pursue their goals and believe in their ability to succeed. She grew up in a tiny village in the Philippines, but her background did not stop her from great accomplishments.  She graduated with a master’s degree from Harvard, received her Ph.D. from MIT, and was listed as one of the top 100 Global Influencers in the Philipina Women’s Network of the United States. In her speech, she said (and I paraphrase), “Growing up, there were many times I could have been killed in a tsunami. Why would I be afraid of any challenges after that?” Early trials expanded her perceived personal strength.

Not all traumas are created equal, and no one should purposefully seek trauma in order to gain any potential benefits. There is plenty of evidence that trauma can have lasting negative effects.  H’Sien Hayward, Ph.D., urges counselors not to preach the potential upside of trauma before patients are ready. She finds that many of the veterans she works with will begin to express some positive reactions on their own. Hayward then “helps patients discover what's meaningful in their lives and then helps them schedule activities involving these interests, such as spending more time with family members or doing volunteer work.”

I am hopeful that as researchers learn more about post-traumatic growth, more people will be able to experience meaning in their suffering, increased empathy, and expanded capacity for compassion.

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