In the mid-1990’s, psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term posttraumatic growth. After years of working with traumatized people, including bereaved parents, Drs. Tedeschi and Calhoun noticed something interesting. Even after suffering some of the most horrific and unthinkable events one can imagine, a large number of these individuals found meaning and purpose in their suffering.
Not only were they healing and returning to “normal,” they were experiencing significant levels of psychological, relational, and spiritual growth. They developed a newfound appreciation for life. They were stronger and better able to handle whatever life had to throw at them.
This result contradicted the prevailing wisdom at the time, and to a slightly lesser extent, of today. The psychiatric and psychological communities believed that the best we could hope for is that, over time, people would get back to where they were before the traumatic event happened.
In many instances, the person was forced to accept the notion that living with a lesser version of one’s self was normal and the best for which they could hope. However, based on their extensive clinical work, Drs. Tedeschi and Calhoun knew that this was not the case. And as a result, over the next 30 years, they focused their research on this phenomenon. Consequently, the theory of posttraumatic growth has developed into a distinct and highly researched construct in psychology, philosophy, religion, and many other fields.
Domains of Growth Defined
The theory of posttraumatic growth posits that people can grow in five different areas, often referred to as domains of growth. One area is personal strength. This area is when someone discovers that they are stronger because of what they went through. They are more resilient, courageous, and comfortable standing up for themselves. There’s a sense that their past difficult life experiences have prepared them for the inevitable hard-knocks that life provides to us all.
A second domain of growth is relating to others. These individuals find that their relationships are deeper and more satisfying. They tend to have little patience with or desire for superficial interactions with others. They search out opportunities to interact with people on a deep, emotional level. They have more compassion for others.
A third area is new possibilities. A new world opens up for these individuals. Things that seemed unachievable before the trauma are now possible. There is an awareness that giving up or never trying results in disappointment and despair. For these individuals, it’s like a new world has opened up to them.
It’s a world in which they can see more clearly and possess the courage to navigate more fully.
A fourth domain of growth is appreciation of life. The “small” things in life are now important. Life is seen as a gift and little is taken for granted. The laugher of children stirs new emotions. The beauty of a painting results in pause and reflection.
Work takes a backseat to spending time with family friends or engaging in hobbies.
And last, there is spiritual and existential change. Following a traumatic event some people experience a deep and profound sense of connectedness to something bigger than themselves. For religious people, their faith becomes stronger. Prayer is more meaningful. Others who are less religious, may become more spiritual. They begin to ask questions such as “why am I here?” “what is my purpose?” “by what code, ethics, or morals should I follow?” and the proverbial question “what is the meaning of life?”
It is important to understand that these domains of growth are not mutually exclusive or “one or the other.” Many people experience growth in multiple areas. In fact, research in posttraumatic growth reveals that most people experience positive changes in multiple areas.
The essence of posttraumatic growth is that people can experience positive and transformative psychological changes in the aftermath of trauma. The theory is based on constructivism, which is the branch of psychology that studies how people create their personal realities.
Trauma Can Challenge Assumptions
Specifically, constructivism is interested in how individuals develop and maintain beliefs about themselves and others, their future, and the world around them. This approach is relevant to posttraumatic growth in that trauma can challenge the previous assumptions a person held about how the world is supposed to work. Like a skyscraper during an earthquake, a person’s core beliefs can be shaken and even demolished following a difficult (or series of difficult) life experience. And like communities that experience earthquakes and restore their infrastructure, the person rebuilds his or her belief system following a traumatic event.
Posttraumatic growth is also based in part on existentialism, which has strong roots in philosophy, religion, and psychology. Existentialism provides a framework that helps humanity make sense of suffering. Instead of seeing pain, hurt, and horror that surrounds us in life as meaningless, existentialism, at a minimum, causes us to ask the questions “why?” and “how?” “Why did this happen to me or my loved one?” “How could a power greater than me allow something like this to occur?”
Existentialism doesn’t give us any universal answers. Rather, it gives us the push and motivation to arrive at the answer most appropriate for us as individuals. It forces us to find meaning in the most dire of circumstances that helps us move forward.
This article was adapted from Dr. Moore’s upcoming book “Transformation after Trauma: Stories of Posttraumatic Growth.”