The Science of Post-Traumatic Growth

Illustration of a growing mind

Illustration by Andy Potts. © Live Happy LLC.

A growing body of research shows that the biggest challenges we face offer opportunities for deeper, more meaningful lives

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in May 1980, 13-year-old Cari Lightner was walking to a church carnival just a few blocks from her home in Fair Oaks, CA, when she was hit by a car and thrown 125 feet in the air. The driver didn’t stop. He was, Cari’s mother Candace would later learn, drunk and out on bail for another drunken driving hit and run. Cari did not survive. Five months after her daughter’s death, Candace held a press conference on Capitol Hill, announcing the formation of MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. In the 33 years since then, the non-profit’s public advocacy work has helped save more than 300,000 lives.

Carlos Arredondo, 52, was sitting in the bleachers near the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off. He had been waiting to greet runners from Tough Ruck, activeduty National Guard soldiers who march the course carrying 40-pound military backpacks, or “rucks,” to honor comrades killed in combat or lost to suicide. Arredondo clutched an American flag and photos of his two deceased sons—Alexander, who died in a firefight in Iraq in 2004, and Brian, who, deeply depressed over his older brother’s death, hanged himself seven years later. Spotting a young runner with both legs blown off below the knee, Arredondo rushed from the stands, smothered the flames that were still burning the runner’s legs with his hands, then ripped a T-shirt into makeshift tourniquets. An iconic photograph from the day captured Arredondo, in his cowboy hat, his hands soaked in blood, pushing the 27-year old Jeff Bauman in a wheelchair. He would later say, “I had my son on my mind” as he repeated to Bauman, “Stay with me, stay with me.”

Strength After Upheaval

These stories are all illustrations of what experts call post-traumatic growth, or PTG, the phenomenon of people becoming stronger and creating a more meaningful life in the wake of staggering tragedy or trauma. They don’t just bounce back—that would be resilience—in significant ways, they bounce higher than they ever did before.

The term PTG was coined in 1995 by Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D., and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D., psychologists at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. “We’d been working with bereaved parents for about a decade,” Richard says. “They’d been through the most shattering kind of loss imaginable. I observed how much they helped each other, how compassionate they were toward other parents who had lost children, how in the midst of their own grief they often wanted to do something about changing the circumstances that had led to their child’s death to prevent other families from suffering the kind of loss they were experiencing. These were remarkable and grounded people who were clear about their priorities in life.”

None of these parents, Richard stresses, believed that their child’s death was a good thing. They would have given up all their newfound activism, insights and altruism, their re-ordered sense of what really matters in life, to have their child back. “The process of growth does not eliminate the pain of loss and tragedy,” Lawrence says. “We don’t use words like healing, recovery or closure.” But out of loss there is often gain, he says. And in ways that can be deeply profound, a staggering crisis can often change people for the better.

The Superhero Within Us

We’ve always known that people often grow stronger and discover a sense of mission after tragedy strikes. It’s the stuff of our superheroes, real and fictional. Batman’s caped crusade against crime was inspired by his witnessing the murder of his parents.

When Christopher Reeve, the actor who played another superhero, was left a quadriplegic by an equestrian accident, he briefly considered suicide. Instead, with Superman-like resolve, he became a powerful advocate for people with spinal-cord injuries. The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which outlived him and his wife, has awarded more than $81 million to researchers working on a cure for paralysis.

In some ways, the term PTG gave experts the language to express, and recognize, something that was hiding in plain sight: trauma’s potential to transform us in positive ways. “Mental health professionals have a long history

of looking only at what’s wrong with human functioning,” says psychologist Anna A. Berardi, Ph.D., who directs the Trauma Response Institute at George Fox University in Portland, OR. “But if you ask people, “Have you been through something difficult and come out the other side stronger, wiser and more compassionate?” the majority of us would answer yes. That’s powerful proof that as humans we’re wired to grow as a result of hardship.”

The concept of PTG is a striking contrast to PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, the lens through which we’ve viewed trauma for the past few decades. First applied to veterans of the Vietnam War, PTSD entered the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the guidebook to psychiatric diagnosis, in 1980. It became embedded in our popular culture as well. “During those post-Vietnam years the main character in shows like Hawaii 5-0 was often the crazed, paranoid Vietnam veteran who’s going to shoot up innocent people,” says Lawrence. Soon PTSD was being evoked after any type of catastrophic event, natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, acts of violence such as 9/11 or the mass shootings in Columbine and Newtown. A psychiatrist’s warning that survivors were likely to start showing symptoms of PTSD—vivid flashbacks, emotional numbing, high levels of anxiety and depression, substance abuse— became a staple of the media’s catastrophe coverage.

In fact, PTSD is relatively rare. According to statistics from the Department of Veteran Affairs, an estimated 3.6 percent of Americans will experience PTSD during the course of a given year, a fraction of the more than 50 percent of those who report at least one traumatic event. Many more will find that they’ve gained something from their ordeal. “A small percentage of people cannot return to their previous level of functioning after a traumatic event,” says Anna. “Most people emerge from a trauma wiser, with a deeper appreciation of life.”

PTG is much more than a new acronym, says psychologist Stephen Joseph, Ph.D., the co-director of the Center for Trauma, Resilience and Growth in Nottingham, England, and author of the book What Doesn't Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth. “It promises,” he writes, “to radically alter our ideas about trauma— especially the notion that trauma inevitably leads to a damaged and dysfunctional life.”

From the February 2014 issue of Live Happy magazine.