Post-Traumatic Growth: Learning from Your Pain
When life is sweet, give thanks and celebrate. When it’s sour, give thanks and grow. Being thankful for everything that happens to you, both the good and the bad, is the foundation of wholeness and true happiness. Even the situations that cause pain deserve gratitude, because they are the basis of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth.
Pain and bitter experiences are powerful fertilizers of personal growth. Suffering can spark significant change in you to create a better version of yourself. This is called post-traumatic growth.
“The meaning of life is to give life meaning.”
What is post-traumatic growth?
In the mid-1990s, psychologists Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun researched post-traumatic growth using the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI). They found that 90% of people who experience a traumatic event – and the pain that goes with it – present at least one indicator of post-traumatic growth.
Tedeschi and Calhoun defined post-traumatic growth as a positive psychological change resulting from adversity and challenge, with the goal of achieving a higher level of functioning.
Trauma challenges the person’s ability to adapt, understand the world, and face the pain of loss. These circumstances contribute to a deeply meaningful process of personal change.
The five pillars of the PTGI are:
- The desire to be open to new opportunities that weren’t present or didn’t seem possible before.
- A better feeling of connection with others, manifested as an increase in empathy for other people’s suffering.
- A greater sense of self-sufficiency, feeling like if they’ve overcome this, they can overcome anything.
- An increase in gratitude for life in general, as well as a greater appreciation for things that were previously taken for granted.
- A deeper sense of spiritual connection or purpose, which can include a change in or redefinition of one’s belief system.
Causes of post-traumatic growth
Post-traumatic growth occurs as the person attempts to adapt to highly negative circumstances that can generate high levels of anxiety.
Growth doesn’t occur as a direct consequence of trauma, but as a consequence of the struggle with the aftermath of the trauma. These effects are crucial for determining the degree of post-traumatic growth.
Some factors are indicative of post-traumatic growth and are associated with greater levels of adaptation after exposure to trauma. Spirituality has shown to be strongly correlated with post-traumatic growth. In fact, many of the most deeply-held spiritual beliefs are the result of exposure to trauma.
Social support is a well-documented relief for mental illness and stress. With respect to post-traumatic growth, not only is having a high level of pre-exposure social support associated with growth, but there’s also neurobiological evidence that supports the idea that social support can regulate a potentially pathological response to stress.
It’s also been found that the ability to accept situations that can’t be changed is crucial for adaptation. This is a significant predictor of post-traumatic growth.
Summoning the superhero inside you
We all know stories of people who have gotten stronger and found meaning in life after a terrible tragedy. In fact, this is how some of the greatest heroes of reality and fiction have been created.
For example, if you made a list of fictional superheroes, almost everyone would include Superman, Batman, and Spiderman. Batman and Spiderman establish a crusade against crime when their loved ones are murdered. Superman is afflicted by another type of tragedy, but this character gives us a lot more to talk about if we consider the story of the actor who first played him.
Christopher Reeve, the original movie Superman, became a quadriplegic after an equestrian accident, a tragedy which led him to consider suicide (oh, the irony of life). However, Reeve summoned his inner Superman and, with the same determination that his character displayed, became one of the biggest defenders of people with spinal cord injuries.
This is just one example of how a serious limitation, illness, or loss can lead to an inner revolution. These tragic events are like earthquakes that throw around all the furniture in your head. But with this new life experience, you can put it all back into place with much more certainty.