The Unacknowledged Potential of PTSD: Posttraumatic Growth

PTSD Growth2Last week, Beacon Lens’ blog post explored the latest developments around Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in honor of June as PTSD Awareness Month. However, there is an element to PTSD that doesn’t get its due: Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) which, in brief, is any positive change that results from a life-altering or traumatic event. Unfortunately, in treating PTSD, we sometimes focus more on the negative, which can be counterproductive for people who have experienced trauma. It’s time to readjust our thinking and focus on unlocking the potential for heightened recovery among people with PTSD.

Like PTSD, PTG as a concept is as old as the hills. Consider the themes in ancient literature of personal growth after tremendous trials, such as Odysseus’ 10-year journey home after the fall of Troy in the Odyssey. However, the term “posttraumatic growth” wasn’t coined until 1995, by Richard Tedeschi, PhD and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, both from the University of North Carolina. In their quest to understand what made people resilient, the two researchers stumbled upon PTG after interviewing individuals who had suffered severe physical and/or emotional injury. The recurring theme from these interviews was that they are now better people in spite of negative changes in their lives.

Specifically, that improvement landed in five general areas, according to Drs. Tedeschi and Calhoun:

  1. New opportunities or possibilities in life
  2. Increased sense of personal strength
  3. Change in relationships with others
  4. Greater appreciation for life in general
  5. Deepening of spiritual life

Therapeutic opportunity the silver lining to trauma

To be clear, the researchers are not implying that traumatic events are good or that people should ideally experience trauma in the name of personal growth. Additionally, experiencing PTG does not mean that people won’t suffer. In fact, the opposite is true; experiencing that distress is what leads to a new wisdom, and ultimately, growth.

The two researchers stumbled upon PTG after interviewing individuals who had suffered severe physical and/or emotional injury. The recurring theme from these interviews was that they are now better people in spite of negative changes in their lives.

Further, not everyone who suffers from PTSD will experience posttraumatic growth. Generally, those people who embrace change and confront difficulty rather than avoid it are more likely to experience PTG. However, when treating PTSD, it is clinicians’ responsibility to help their patients tap into that potential.

What does that mean exactly? It’s a delicate balance between the clinician’s acknowledgement of the trauma while also helping the person to see other or new opportunities, asserts Dr. Tedeschi. It entails pointing out what that person can still do. It sometimes means reteaching social skills or helping that person to redefine success for him or herself. Finally, it requires “philosophical discussions, careful, attentive conversations” between the clinician and patient.

Is PTG another term for resiliency?

There’s controversy among researchers on the relationship between PTG and resiliency. Some say PTG is a form of resiliency while others suggest that resiliency leads to PTG. Drs. Tedeschi and Calhoun suggest an inverse relationship between the two: highly resilient people experience less PTG presumably because of stronger coping skills, which allow them to deal with trauma more successfully than those people who are less resilient.

In contrast to PTG, resiliency is more about the ability to deal with the adversity than it is about the outcome of the adversity. Resiliency is about the “process of adapting well” to stress or adversity, with strong relationships as resilience’s greatest factor, according to the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury. It also involves strong communication and problem-solving skills, as well as self-confidence.

Experiencing PTG does not mean that people won’t suffer. In fact, the opposite is true; experiencing that distress is what leads to a new wisdom, and ultimately, growth.

PTG, on the other hand, refers to moving beyond one’s ability for adaptation prior to the trauma. It is personal change that exceeds one’s ability to resist or not be damaged by trauma. In other words, it is change at the most fundamental level and not the personal quality that leads to change.

While we can’t ignore the trauma inherent to PTSD, at the same time, we can’t ignore the underlying potential for positive change – for helping people live their lives to their fullest potential. To do so would be a disservice to PTSD sufferers.

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2 Comments. Leave new

Thank you, Dr. Proctor!

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It is quite encouraging to see the concept of PTG disseminated on a large scale. This concept certainly relates to the strengths-based and person-centered approach to helping individuals uncover their potential and lead their most fulfilling lives. Thanks for this clear explanation Dr. Proctor!

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