In previous columns, I’ve talked in some detail about the concept of posttraumatic growth and how it presents in the lives of trauma survivors. In short, it is a transformative process that brings about significant positive change in a person’s life following a difficult life experience. In this first of a two column series, I talk about what posttraumatic growth is not.
Posttraumatic Growth is Different from Normal Growth and Development
The growth we encounter in trauma survivors is not the same as normal, natural development. Just as children do, as a part of aging and experience, we mature in the way we see things and in how we act. This change is not precipitated by a difficult life experience that caused us to rethink our beliefs about life. Instead, it usually occurs as a result of the maturation of our thinking and emotional processes. In other words, over time, we learn to think and feel at a more “grown-up” level.
This type of growth is shaped by various influences such as reading an inspirational book, watching a stirring television show or movie, or having a deep conversation with a loved one. Yes, these things can cause a person to rethink his or her life and produce emotional, social, and interpersonal benefits. But, unlike posttraumatic growth, the impact may not be as great, or it may be short-lived.
Some people who report posttraumatic growth to us describe it as “knowing something in my bones” rather than on a more intellectual basis. They feel it, but can’t fully explain it. Things people knew intellectually or accepted casually become known in this more impactful way. This, in turn, prompts new actions and a sense that there’s no turning back to the old ways of how life used to be. Simply put, posttraumatic growth is not the same as growing older and wiser. It is much more than that.
Posttraumatic Growth is not Successful Coping with Daily Hassles
Daily life presents challenges and frustrations. We all need to learn how to take these more in stride, and successfully manage daily life and its routines. This kind of coping is important, but it’s not the same as posttraumatic growth.
Posttraumatic growth comes about from events that have a shocking effect, forcing people to rethink how they are living their lives. For many, posttraumatic growth leads to a perspective where daily hassles have less impact, because in contrast to trauma, they seem trivial.
People exposed to trauma may come to see these hassles as small stuff that they shouldn’t sweat. But the run-of-the-mill hassles of daily life don’t usually lead to major shifts in our thinking about how to live, certainly not in the way that traumatic events cause us to do. That’s because, unlike trauma, the daily hassles of life don’t disrupt our core belief system. And as a result, these hassles don’t set the stage for posttraumatic growth. They provide us with experience and new skills, but the way we view ourselves, others, and the world pretty much stays the same.
Posttraumatic Growth is not the Opposite of PTSD
People who have symptoms of PTSD would like to be rid of them. Hearing about posttraumatic growth might lead someone diagnosed with PTSD to think, “Yes! Let me experience posttraumatic growth and I will be free of my worries about safety, my nightmares, my irritability, and my depression.”
Although it’s not that simple, the reality is that the same circumstances that produced PTSD also set the stage for posttraumatic growth. The trauma and its attack on the core belief system produces the insecurity and chaos of PTSD. But when these core beliefs are redeveloped into more adaptive ones, we can see posttraumatic growth. The symptoms may still be present to some extent, but they are easier to endure when there is another side to this experience.
Posttraumatic growth gives people something else to focus on such as a new sense of self or a new purpose. The symptoms of PTSD become something that are inconvenient, but do not assume a central role in a person’s life. For many, these symptoms lessen over time to such a degree that they are of little concern.
The symptoms of PTSD do not define them as people, or even as people who have experienced trauma. Instead, there are new realizations, and new work to be done. A sense of change and growth is not only capable, but likely. And although it may seem counterintuitive, people can experience PTSD and posttraumatic growth at the same time. Remember, it’s the struggle with the distress that leads to growth and not the actual traumatic event itself.
*This article was adapted from Dr. Moore’s upcoming book Transformation after Trauma: Stories of Posttraumatic Growth.