The theory of posttraumatic growth has been studied for more than three decades. However, saying that psychologists Richard Tedeschi and his colleague Lawrence Calhoun (psychologists who coined the term posttraumatic growth in the 1990s) “discovered” the concept is a little like saying Christopher Columbus “discovered” America.
Sure, Columbus was the first to bring a large expedition of sailors to the Americas and then share his experiences with Europe. But, in reality, this part of the world was already inhabited by Native Americans. You can’t really discover something that’s already been discovered.
The same is true for posttraumatic growth. What Drs. Tedeschi and Calhoun did was not discover posttraumatic growth, but rather develop and explore the various aspects of the concept and place it within a psychological framework.
The point is not to take away from the groundbreaking work they spent the majority of their careers studying. It’s to make the point that the process and outcome of posttraumatic growth has been around since the beginning of humanity. And the best examples of posttraumatic growth can be found in the world’s religions and philosophy.
Religion and Posttraumatic Growth
The concept of posttraumatic growth is found in all of the world’s major religions. Many examples of the struggle with trauma and resulting growth can be found specifically in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam. The connection between religion and posttraumatic growth is more than just academic. In fact, religion can play an important role when it comes to achieving growth.
A number of studies have shown that religion and spiritual beliefs influence posttraumatic growth in a number of ways. For example, those individuals who are more involved in religion (go to worship services, pray regularly) are more likely to report growth following trauma than those who are not.
Research has also shown that the degree to which a person holds religious convictions predicts the degree of future growth following difficult experiences. Does this mean that if you rarely step foot inside a church, synagogue, or mosque that you are less likely to thrive after trauma? No, not necessarily. Some studies have shown that being open minded about religious change is more important than actually being involved with a particular religion.
Bottom line, religion, spiritual beliefs, and openness to religious change can be important when it comes to posttraumatic growth.
Religion can also act as a catalyst for posttraumatic growth. Trauma shatters our core beliefs. It causes us to question everything that we thought we knew before the event. This challenge to our beliefs is what sets the stage for growth.
Religious beliefs can be one set of core beliefs that are uprooted. The psychological distress that follows this disruption forces one to develop new beliefs, which is the precursor to growth.
A related concept is “moral injury”. Moral injury is a way to understand the shame, guilt, anxiety, and sadness that may result from engaging in a behavior that goes against deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.
A good example is the turmoil a soldier may experience after intentionally or unintentionally harming or killing someone in combat. The act of harm to another may conflict with an individual’s deeply held religious or spiritual beliefs or their cultural or group norms. However, the resulting emotional turmoil following the aftermath of the act can also be a catalyst for growth down the road. In my experience, in cases of moral injury, I have seen tremendous positive shifts in religious and spiritual beliefs.
Another connection between religion and posttraumatic growth is when religion is viewed as the outcome. In other words, the struggle with a difficult life experience leads the person to a new religious connection. In my work with trauma survivors over the years, I’ve seen people who identified as atheist or agnostic go on to develop deep religious beliefs and practices.
Religious beliefs can provide a way to cope with and make sense of trauma. They help some put the most horrific experiences imaginable within a larger context that offers hope and meaning. For example, a person with strong religious convictions may tell themselves “God is testing me to see if I am strong enough in my faith” or “If I go to God and ask for his grace, I will be able to get through this.” In situations like this, God acts as the deepest and most profound social support one can rely on.
*This article was adapted from Dr. Moore’s upcoming book Transformation after Trauma: Stories of Posttraumatic Growth.