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Post-Traumatic Growth

What Doesn't Kill Us

My talk at UEL on posttraumatic growth

On Saturday I had the privilege of being the guest speaker at the University of East London’s Alumni evening for its applied masters in positive psychology. This blog is a summary of the evening.

I talked about the topic of posttraumatic growth which has been one of my research interests dating back over twenty-five years when I first began my PhD studies on how survivors of disaster cope.

In 1987, on Friday 6th March, a large passenger cruise ship called the Herald of Free Enterprise left the port of Zeebruggee in Belgium en route to England. Nearly five hundred passengers, eighty crew, and 1,100 tons of haulage were on board. Passengers were settling into their seats, queuing up at the restaurants, and ordering drinks at the bar. Below, water was flooding onto the car decks.

Unbeknownst to passengers and crew, one of the bow doors had not been secured. There was a lurch. Then without warning, within forty-five seconds, the ship rolled over. One hundred and ninety-three people died in what was to be one of the most horrific maritime disasters of the twentieth century.

Three years later I was part of the research team that was working with the survivors. As part of our questionnaire we asked “Has your view of life changed since the disaster – and if so, has it changed in a positive way or a negative way?

Such a question is now commonplace in surveys because posttraumatic growth is well documented but then it seemed like an unusual question to ask, one that we squeezed in at the last minute, and we didn’t expect the results.

Although 46% said that their view of life had changed for the worse, 43 percent said that their view of life had changed for the better.

My thanks always to those who took part in that research, whose answers helped to change our understanding of trauma and sparked my life-long interest in understanding the way in which trauma has both positive and negative outcomes.

Twenty-five years on, my conclusion is that trauma can be the springboard for people to re-evaluate their lives and reflect on themselves and their relationships. It seems clear that the human brain has developed over millions of years of evolution to be sculpted through experience. Trauma provides a set of experiences that requires we redraw our mental maps. But since that demands we let go of our previous assumptions it can be a difficult and distressing process.

As such we can begin to understand posttraumatic stress as the experience of the process of breakdown and disorganisation in the person’s assumptions about themselves and the world. Posttraumatic growth describes the ways in which the person begins to rebuild and organise anew their worldview, in a way that is more realistic and adaptive for them.

The main message for positive psychologists therefore was that posttraumatic growth is ultimately a different way for us to think about posttraumatic stress as a process rather than an outcome of trauma - a process that can be growthful.

My thanks to all those who gave up their Saturday evening to attend and to the UEL team - Kate, Hanna, Itai, Tim, Yannick and Amie for organising and making the evenign such fun.

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