Growing After Trauma: What is Post-Traumatic Growth?
When people think of trauma, they often associate it with the disorders and the difficulties that can occur as a result. Relatively few people, however, have heard about post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic growth (or adversarial growth) has been documented in all kinds of trauma survivors, from those who’ve survived plane crashes to leukemia to child sexual abuse.1 Post-traumatic growth is defined as the positive changes that occur as a person works through their healing journey after trauma. Karen, a survivor of childhood abuse, described her experience of post-traumatic growth in this way:2
It has been a time of great contrasts—anguish and despair followed by real joy and confidence. I feel as if I have crossed a bridge and am now on the other side, but still finding my feet… I know though that life is change, and one of the ways I have changed is a much greater sense of living in the present, being present now and accepting that everything changes…
There are a number of ways someone can experience growth after trauma. Below is a list of common areas in which trauma survivors have reported growth.1,2 This is not a comprehensive list, of course, and each survivor has their own unique story of the growth they may experience in a variety of ways.
Connection with others
Appreciation of life
Treatment of others
Enhanced family closeness
Sense of belonging
Will to live
Greater belief in self
Increased faith in people
Again, this is not a comprehensive list, and there is no right or wrong way to grow. For one survivor, their growth might allow them to thrive in every aspect of their life after working through their trauma. For another, their growth may be in one specific area. And yet another may still deal with many difficulties on a day-to-day basis, but nevertheless experience positive changes compared to before their healing journey started. Anna describes her experience this way:3
“Once I was finally able to voice that I was molested, people started coming to me with things that had happened to them when they were a child. And they were like, ‘How do you handle this so well?’ And I had thought that I wasn’t handling it well at all. I thought I was completely and utterly broken. But on the outside, I looked like this pillar of strength. And after I noticed that people started to draw strength off of me, I thought, ‘Why can’t I draw strength off of myself?'”
Although the research is preliminary, experiences of post-traumatic growth like Karen’s and Anna’s may be reflected in actual changes in brain structure. After the East Japan Great Earthquake in 2011, researchers compared brain scans that were taken before and after the earthquake.4 They found that the more post-traumatic growth someone had experienced, especially in being able to relate to others, the stronger their brain tissue had developed in an area called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This in an area that can be affected by child sexual abuse, but is also important in resilience, healing, and positive coping.
The growth that many trauma survivors experience is similar to the growth of a lotus flower. The lotus flower rises through muck in which it’s planted to beautifully bloom and thrive. Its seeds can lay dormant for hundreds of years, but still experience “rebirth” when placed in just the right conditions.5 Finally, the lotus flower adds incredible value to those who cultivate it by providing nutrition, medicinal uses, and sustenance.
Through all the muck you may have endured, you can rise above and thrive. At times you may have felt “dead inside” or that the “real you” hasn’t been able to emerge, but you have the capacity to experience renewal and rebirth in your own way. You bring incredible value to the table with who you are—your strength, your courage, and your ability to triumph over immense obstacles. You embody all that is wonderful about the lotus.
To discover more about the growth you may have experienced through surviving trauma, take a look at the list of statements below and see how strongly you relate to each statement within a category. These statements are taken directly from the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory, but are intended here for self-discovery, not diagnosis or treatment.6
I have a greater feeling of self-reliance.
I know better that I can handle difficulties.
I am better able to accept the way things work out.
I discovered that I’m stronger than I thought I was.
Appreciation of Life:
I changed my priorities about what is important in life.
I have a greater appreciation for the value of my own life.
I can better appreciate each day.
Relating to Others:
I have more compassion for others.
I more clearly see that I can count on people in times of trouble.
I have a greater sense of closeness with others.
I am more willing to express my emotions.
I put more effort into my relationships.
I learned a great deal about how wonderful people are.
I better accept needing others.
I have a better understanding of spiritual matters.
I have a stronger religious faith.
I developed new interests.
I established a new path for my life.
I am able to do better things with my life.
New opportunities are available which wouldn’t have been otherwise.
I am more likely to try to change things which need changing.
What other ways have you grown and what other strengths do you see in yourself that aren’t listed above? If you have a good supporter or friend, reach out today and ask how they have seen you grow and what strengths they see in you.
Through trauma, you have endured suffering. But through your healing journey, you, like the lotus, rise above in triumph and victory.