In my last column, I talked about posttraumatic growth and what it is not. For example, posttraumatic growth is not the same as normal growth and development. It is not the successful navigation of the daily hassles life throws at us. And I talked about how posttraumatic growth is not the opposite of posttraumatic stress disorder. This week, I discuss a few more things that shouldn’t be confused with posttraumatic growth.
Posttraumatic Growth is Not the Same as Resilience
A term in the trauma literature that has found its way into popular culture is “resilience.” The influence of the recent “positive psychology” movement has contributed to this, although the term has been used in psychology for decades.
Things that are resilient resist being deformed or bounce back to their original shape. And so, resilient people are minimally affected by stress and trauma, because they have skills and perspectives that allow them to manage these events more effectively.
Because of the minimal effect of trauma on resilient people, they are unlikely to experience much posttraumatic growth. This is because posttraumatic growth results from “psychological earthquakes” that challenge or shatter the core belief system. Resilient people tend to have less disruption to their beliefs following trauma. So, people who are not resilient to a trauma, are more likely to experience growth!
One important relationship between resilience and posttraumatic growth comes after a person has been in the posttraumatic growth process for a while. When core beliefs have been rebuilt, they are better able to withstand future traumas. Therefore, these people who have a stronger set of core beliefs are becoming more resilient. We can therefore say that posttraumatic growth provides a pathway to resilience.
Posttraumatic Growth is Not Easy
As I’ve mentioned before, posttraumatic growth is the result of struggle in the aftermath of trauma. I use the word struggle very deliberately. Traumatic events usually involve loss, they are not welcomed, and include difficult emotions such as anger, sadness, guilt, and shame.
After trauma, most people are just trying to survive and aren’t concerned about their prospects for growth. Just managing the loss, disorientation due to shattered core beliefs, and the negative emotions are enough to take on in the aftermath of trauma. Getting from despair to growth takes time, patience with oneself, and hard work, hopefully with some supportive companions.
Posttraumatic Growth Does Not Mean Happiness
Posttraumatic growth does not erase a person’s experiences, the misery after the trauma, or make life easier. Distress often coexists alongside posttraumatic growth. Consider the existential aspect of growth. Deep thinkers would say that suffering in life may be unavoidable, but we can find meaning in it. Therefore, we do not suffer in vain.
Instead, suffering becomes tolerable because there is a point, a reason, or another aspect of living that is worthwhile. Life does not become a constant happy experience when people develop posttraumatic growth, but it does become more meaningful; meaning that people have found following trauma and how these meanings allow people to feel fulfilled. And this meaning occurs while the person is still dealing with circumstances that may seem to the outsider as nothing more than devastating.
There are a lot of myths out there about posttraumatic growth. Unlike popular portrayals in the media or those found within the self-help genre section in your local bookstore, posttraumatic growth is not “turning lemons into lemonade.” It is not “looking for the silver lining,” “turning that frown upside down,” or any other catchy phrase intended to give you a new perspective. It is a process—a difficult one. But, it is also an outcome that is life changing and worth the struggle.
*This article was adapted from Dr. Moore’s upcoming book, “Transformation after Trauma: Stories of Posttraumatic Growth.”