A key domain of posttraumatic growth is simply referred to as spiritual and existential change. At first glance, this may sound like some abstract theoretical construct that only philosophers and clergy would care about. Or, it may sound like some kind of intellectual study that has no real practical value. However, it is quite the opposite. As with other kinds of posttraumatic growth, the changes people encounter following trauma are experienced emotionally and understood through a painful process. As a result, people who describe spiritual and existential changes in the aftermath of trauma feel that they have learned profound lessons that will last a lifetime.
In the back of our minds, the “big issues” lurk. We ignore these issues as we are busy dealing with what needs to be accomplished each day. We also put them aside by pursuing pleasure and fun. But some circumstances can make it hard to ignore the big issues. Traumatic events often force people to consider the “life or death” questions.
This is another way that people sometimes experience posttraumatic growth – spiritual and existential change. Changes occur in people’s spiritual lives and beliefs, and their approach to existential questions; for example, considerations about human existence.
People may find themselves focused more directly on spiritual questions about the afterlife, meaning, and mortality. Some people find themselves simply grateful to be alive after being threatened with death.
Life and Death Questions and Where are the Answers?
What is meant by the life and death questions, the big issues, and our considerations of human existence? Sometimes, we are literally asking questions about why we are alive, or what happens to us after death. We wonder what we are supposed to do with the time we have in our lives, especially because we cannot be sure how much time we have. We see that there are many different life spans, and it can be difficult to account for the fact that some people live to be over 100, when some children die.
We may wonder if there is any justice in this. Is the old saying that only the good die young true in any way? Why do good people suffer through tragedy when so many people who are not living well get rewarded? How do we find answers to such questions, and can we trust the answers we might get?
These kinds of questions may seem to be the province of theologians and philosophers. But when we face loss and trauma, these issues can take on an importance that makes them much more than intellectual speculation. Instead, they can become the basis for crucial life decisions.
Trauma Makes Us Question Beliefs
A defining aspect of trauma is that it causes us to seriously question our core beliefs – those things we have assumed to be true about the fundamental questions of life. One of the reasons we have assumed certain things to be true is because we have been taught a certain way, perhaps in our religious institutions or our families of origin, for example.
Another reason we have assumed them to be true is because they are so difficult to clearly answer, so we simply accept a conclusion rather than working on it.
Finally, these big questions that we make assumptions about may not seem relevant to our everyday lives.
It is important to remember that posttraumatic growth is not a goal to be attained. Instead, it is more like a way forward in living life, according to new principles. The core beliefs in the realm of the existential tend to be open to further interpretation and development over a person’s lifetime.
Trauma serves as a catalyst to spark a deeper interest in these ideas as part of the process of posttraumatic growth. As this process continues, a person may become more attuned to finding ways to live that are fulfilling and meaningful. Leaving behind previous understandings and the ways of living that are based on them can have profound implications for the person’s social network, priorities, and goals.
Spiritual and existential changes are not mere intellectualizations about the meaning of life. Instead, they tend to be the basis for major life decisions, and can put people on a new life course.
*This article was adapted from Dr. Moore’s upcoming book, “Transformed by Trauma: Stories of Posttraumatic Growth.”