Post-traumatic growth--thriving through life's crises

By Maj. Thomas A. Jarrett, Social Worker, U.S. Army Public Health CommandApril 8, 2014

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEED PROVING GROUND, Md. (April 1, 2014) -- How often do we hear that yet another Soldier, colleague or family has been traumatized by an event? Learning that someone survived a crisis may cause us to look at him or her differently, imagining that they might now be damaged permanently by such events.

We see little if any benefit to loss, struggle or suffering, and quickly label those who suffer "victims." Why do so many hold this viewpoint?

Professionals have become very skilled in diagnosing, treating, and sometimes even preventing mental disorders; however, focus on disease and injury alone may blind us to hidden growth opportunities. Many experiencing crises and adversity are able to resolve and grow from these events, drawing upon internal strengths previously unrecognized. There is an advantage to not seeing yourself as traumatized.

Noted psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl, a European Holocaust survivor, described this path toward thriving in his book, "Man's Search for Meaning." He observed humans must find an adaptive meaning for their suffering if they are to survive and thrive. Current researchers are adding to his insights daily.

Psychologists James Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina coined the term "post-traumatic growth" in 1986. They find that individuals who struggle with life's crises often realize positive personal growth through their loss and suffering, though no one would choose that path towards growth. Using their Post-traumatic Growth Inventory, individuals can measure their own growth or thriving responses using five categories: Appreciation of Life, Relating to Others, Personal Strength, New Possibilities and Spiritual Change. Additionally, virtually all cultures surveyed recognize similar growth patterns, as described in their spiritual and philosophical traditions. Let us examine a few.

Epictetus, a famous Roman stoic philosopher, stated, "It is not the thing itself, but view men take of it that disturbs them."

Nietzsche, the famous German philosopher, said, "If we know why, we can endure any how."

Admiral James Stockdale, a Medal of Honor recipient and prisoner of the infamous North Vietnamese "Hanoi Hilton," spent seven-plus years in captivity. His goal was to endure and "return with honor," which he did using similar insights.

Spiritual traditions, such as the account of Job in the Bible's Old Testament, also recount spiritual growth through the test of suffering. Post-traumatic growth applies across age generations as well, to include kids.

Crises or post-traumatic stress incurred in youth can be especially damaging developmentally. Even more traumatic are psychological injuries received at the hand of family members. Children may demonstrate remarkable resilience and hardiness as they adapt to their world and are taught that some growth can follow any suffering. Those who endure the most are often the most transformed. We do not accept "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for life."

Post-traumatic growth, or PTG, is a possibility, not a guarantee. We do not shame someone because they have not shown PTG, yet realize PTG may still occur or follow crisis or trauma. Inspiring hope and patience, and teaching clients to anticipate both loss and growth, will improve outcomes post-trauma. Join the growing body of Americans that teach our children that adversity can result, and often results, in their emotional resiliency development.

Related Links:

U.S. Army Public Health Command

Posttraumatic Growth Research Group

Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Web site Health News Ready and Resilient Traumatic Brain Injury