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Post traumatic growth – Beyond just healing

This post was first published on the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine website, 15 September 2021

Post traumatic growth – Beyond just healing

We talk a lot about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), its causes, impacts and management. But let us for once flip it and talk about post-traumatic growth (PTG).

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic I wondered how life would move on, will we progress and grow? We cannot predict the future, but surely there must be something – so I set off to research this topic. This reflection is meant to share the concept of PTG especially in the context of what we have all experienced during the last 18 months.

Having explored the concept I have found it to be useful as a lifestyle change and have experienced a positive impact in all aspects of life and wish to share my learning with you. However, it is not within the scope of this narrative to provide psychological advice.

Scientific interest in PTG in the 1980s and 1990s was eclipsed by PTSD and how destructive it can be. By the mid 1990s the term PTG (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996) was introduced.

What is PTG?

Post-traumatic growth (PTG), or benefit finding, is a concept describing positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning (Wikipedia).

There is no gold standard definition of post-traumatic growth. There is an agreed definition provided by DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) around which measurement tools can be developed.

There is no question that actual post-traumatic growth occurs. This has been demonstrated in before-and-after studies (e.g. Peterson & Seligman, 2003).

Does that mean we have to forget the trauma and how?

PTSD and PTG are not a linear phenomenon. They are not a trigger and an outcome. The inverted U-shape relationship between post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic growth has been reported in several studies (e.g. Kunst, 2010).

What are the key concepts of PTG?

Countless times you will have heard the saying: ‘what does not kill you, makes you stronger.’ The underlying principles of PTG are finding strength through suffering and evaluating your existence. The journey of PTG is based on the idea that life satisfaction can be achieved after experiencing adversity. The transformation from suffering to growth requires learning the skills to acknowledge and accept the adversity, then committing to adapt by learning coping strategies which helps alleviate the pain and promotes growth.

What factors can promote PTG?

By reflecting on adversity we can enhance our appreciation of life. This can trigger spiritual changes, and promote awareness of new possibilities. It can nurture relationships, by enabling us to reach out to friends and family. In the process we can unravel our own strengths, emerging stronger and better able to facilitate the healing of others, helping them to thrive, which in turn promotes your own healing and growth.

So how is PTG different to resilience?

Resilience is the ability to move forward in the face of adversity, whereas PTG is the functioning beyond the pre-trauma level.
Resilient individuals may not experience PTG as they do not identify the trauma as challenging.

An opportunity awaits if we are able to use trauma to find new ways to grow. Ultimately, it can help us understand that suffering is universal and to appreciate cultural differences. It is about acknowledging that people are experts in their own experiences.

Post-traumatic growth has also been talked about in terms of finding and developing purpose in life. And this has been discussed by Dr Richard Pile recently as a core component of the lifestyle medicine approach. As Dr Pile states: purpose and meaning are vital for our wellbeing – indeed this should be considered as a “pillar” of lifestyle medicine.

My research into PTG has revealed that by transforming and sustaining post-traumatic growth there are potential benefits for all those who have experienced trauma.  And in doing so, perhaps we can move beyond the concept of the post trauma experience as a “stress disorder”.

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