We experience many traumas as we go through life.
There are ‘micro-traumas’ like changing schools, failing an exam or giving a presentation and getting it wrong.
There are ‘meso-traumas’, such as a house burglary, a bump in the car or health worries.
And, sadly for many of us, there are ‘macro-traumas’. They are those experiences which feel like a direct threat and are connected to life and death itself.
After a trauma, some will experience some disturbing PTSD symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks, but many will find a way of integrating the experience into the story of their lives.
Much has been written about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a recognised mental health condition described in DSM V. Far less has been written about post-traumatic growth (PTG).
Jenny sat in my consulting room looking forlorn.
She had been ruminating about the past. After a period of bullying at work, Jenny had experienced what she referred to as ‘a complete nervous breakdown.’
Her treatment at the hands of the mental health services had been less than helpful. The antidepressants didn’t work. In fact they made things worse. She was unable to continue in her job and finally accepted redundancy on medical grounds. A long period of depression followed and Jenny reported that she never felt quite the same. She was ‘not quite Jenny any more’. She felt ‘broken.’
Jenny was in victim mode.
Someone, or something, out there in the world had harmed Jenny and now she felt diminished by the experience. She had lost hope that she could get herself back; that something had been lost along the way, never to be retrieved.
Jenny needed to tell herself another story. I asked her if she had ever heard of post traumatic growth.
Victim or survivor
The idea that suffering and distress can bring about positive change goes back thousands of years.
The ancient Hebrews, Greeks and early Christians all refer to the potential for growth through suffering. The positive psychology movement became interested in the notion during the 1990s and now, there is building evidence that people who experience trauma and difficult periods in their life really can make significant positive changes as result.
Post traumatic growth is also called ‘benefit finding’ and refers to psychological change experienced as a direct result of adversity and challenges, which result in ‘a higher level of functioning.’
PTG is not about returning to a ‘default position’ but rather about expanding and experiencing significant life-changing shifts in thinking and relating to the world post trauma. It can also be characterised by decreased levels of reactivity and faster recovery in response to similar stressors in the future.
Post traumatic growth is associated with thriving which goes above and beyond the notion of resilience and equates to bouncing back plus.
Attacked Not Defeated
One supreme example of PTG is Phoebe Tansley; a young woman who, unfortunately, on her travels in Africa, was subjected to gang rape.
Phoebe was unable to get adequate help in Uganda and got back to the UK as soon as possible where she accessed medical and psychological support through the many services available over here.
After the event, Phoebe did not stay in victim mode for long. She tapped into her anger at the lack of help available to other women in that country and used the anger is a motivation for change.
In 2012, Phoebe founded the charity Attacked Not Defeated to raise funds to provide supportive services to African women who experience the trauma of rape.
Showing great insight, Phoebe said; ‘To me, it’s a kind of therapy. Something bad happens. Make it good, and then it’s not bad anymore.’
That’s post traumatic growth!
Tedeshi, R.G., & Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundation and Empirical Evidence. Philadelphia, PA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.