Post-traumatic growth (PTG) & you: how to access PTG

Updated: May 25

“Be a pain transformer, not a pain transmitter. This is the only way the world will heal.” - John Mark Green For most people, the most well-known acronym associated with trauma is PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). This may be in part because of its various representations in media: from Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie to Apocalypse Now and Forrest Gump, PTSD has continued to be a well-explored theme. Similarly, in recent decades there have been historical retrospectives of what was known as ‘shell-shock’ in the aftermath of the World Wars, used to describe the combat-induced PTSD soldiers exhibited upon returning home. But while the discussion often centres around the stress and negative impact of trauma, a new conversation is emerging amongst researchers and survivors around the positive effects that can arise from traumatic experiences, a phenomenon aptly named post-traumatic growth (PTG).

It is important to first emphasise that PTG does NOT contend that people must undergo trauma to grow and mature. In fact, research suggests that positive life experiences can do just as much to help a person grow and gain new perspectives.[1] However, while navigating life in the aftermath of trauma can be painful and difficult, it also can uproot your sense of purpose, your identity, and your relationships for the better. Survivors report for instance that coming out the other side of a traumatic event gives them a new appreciation for life, as well as a renewed sense of purpose as they begin to narrativise their journey from before, during, and after the event. By reflecting on their own lives, survivors begin to reconceptualise their sense of self as someone who is strong and resilient: if they can survive the event(s), they can survive anything. But even further, they often take the opportunity to help others in their community and take preventative action towards what they experienced so that others don’t. They use their own story and experiences to get involved in social issues and broaden people’s understanding in the face of an all-too-often unsympathising and victim-blaming culture. Moreover, because trauma’s immediate aftermath can make a survivor feel vulnerable, it is at this moment that they can seriously re-evaluate their relationships and take action. Survivors often form a closer bond with those who support them, and distance themselves from those who aren’t (or who are making the survivor’s recovery more difficult). In essence, survivors often learn who their ‘real’ friends are, and they foster these positive relationships more than ever before. It is also in the aftermath of trauma that survivors often have a shift in perspective on life, prioritising their loved ones as well as the positivity that can exist in contrast to what they have experienced (as well as not stressing too much about the little things). "I have gained more confidence and self-awareness. I know my strengths and weaknesses so I can now begin to build on them." Post-traumatic growth is therefore a term to label and document these experiences, in the hopes of facilitating a discussion among survivors who might not have considered understanding their trauma as having a positive impact. In increasing awareness of PTG, survivors will hopefully have greater access to it, shifting to a more positive and open mindset about what they can do to grow. We must be wary, of course, of overly emphasising positivity; it is not part of the mission of PTG awareness to gloss over survivors’ struggles and the negative emotions they understandably feel at various points in their journey to recovery. It is not about forcing smiles for others or ignoring pain and stress, but simply recognising that growth can be a result of experiencing trauma, and that this is a shared experience amongst survivors. "I enjoyed finding out about me, good and bad. It gave me a chance to find out what I need to work on." "My time with Thriving Survivors has been wonderful. I have met new people and gained new skills whilst working through my trauma." A good analogy is the Japanese art of kintsugi, where a broken piece of pottery (for example, a bowl) is mended with a kind of lacquer mixed with gold dust. The idea is that the breakage is now a part of bowl’s history; it is visible and recognisable to all that the bowl has undergone a breakage, but it now has an added sense of beauty and strength. Kintsugi gives the bowl a unique effect, all the while mending it. PTG is a similar process; it helps fight the feelings of shame and fear that survivors experience and reframes the recovery process as helping survivors achieve new heights in emotional and psychological well-being. Accessing PTG is about perspective: studies show that those with more optimistic and open mindsets report greater experiences of PTG.[2] We hope that the shift in conversation away from solely PTSD towards PTG will help survivors move to a more open mindset and embrace the positive changes trauma can induce in their lives. In turn, we hope to create a survivor community that finds strength in themselves as well as each other. ​ [1] Mangelsdorf, Judith. 2018. ‘Does Growth Require Suffering? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis on Genuine Posttraumatic and Postecstatic Growth’, Psychological Bulletin vol. 3 issue 145 [2] Haidt, J. 2006. The happiness hypothesis: Putting ancient wisdom and philosophy to the test of modern science (London: Arrow Books)

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