How Trauma Can Become a Catalyst for Personal Growth

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For some people, adversity isn’t something to just get past. As I discovered, it can also be the impetus for new, positive behaviors.


Deeper knowledge of post-traumatic growth, or PTG, can help therapists and other professionals pave the way for positive recovery after trauma.

The loss of a loved one, a brutal attack, a crippling accident. Trauma comes in many shapes and forms. It can also be a series of hardships over a short period. That’s what happened to me.

For over a year, in 2021 and 2022, I was involved in a situation where I feared for my physical well-being. Then in October of 2022, my father died. The day before my dad died, my dog died. Two months later, my cat died. Then, my husband suddenly and unexpectedly underwent open-heart surgery, followed by a long recovery.

This relentless series of negative events over just four months led to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. I couldn’t sleep, I lost interest in my hobbies, I was snappish and I neglected my family and social life. I remember being so tense that chewing food was difficult.

In the ensuing months, however, something curious has happened. My overwhelming feelings of anxiety and exhaustion have been replaced with boundless energy and creativity, along with a deeper connection to people, even strangers. In short, my PTSD has evolved into what psychologists call post-traumatic growth, or PTG.

Transformative change

Less well-known than PTSD, post-traumatic growth describes what happens when people who struggled psychologically after adversity in time come to experience positive, transformative changes in their mindset and behavior. The concept was developed in the mid-1990s by psychologists Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. Their research identified five major ways people experienced growth after trauma: a wellspring of personal strength; the ability to relate to others more deeply; an openness to new possibilities; a greater appreciation of life; and spiritual and existential change.

These outcomes reflect more than just resilience—what’s thought of as just “getting over it.” PTG generally involves a changed worldview and new, positive behaviors. “You don’t necessarily become ‘happy,’ but you become more fulfilled in your life,” Tedeschi says. “There are still difficulties.”


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That resonates with me. I didn’t set out to “grow” from adverse experiences. That’s why some of my behavioral changes came as such a surprise. With help from my husband (who has fully recovered, by the way), I built a hiking trail on the steep, wooded terrain behind my house. I became more deeply involved in my church food pantry. And countless hours have been spent making complicated greeting cards with interactive elements and mailing them to friends and family members. Over the summer, I hosted “crafting camps” for my friends’ grandchildren in which we marbled paper, made bath bombs and “sold” homemade ice cream to neighbors from a DIY ice-cream stand.

What makes this remarkable is that I am somewhat of a loner who values solitude. Before this “rebirth,” I shied away from social gatherings and community involvement.

“Service to others seems to be a hallmark of this growth process,” says Tedeschi, who is executive director of the Boulder Crest Institute for Posttraumatic Growth, a Bluemont, Va., nonprofit with training campuses for military veterans and emergency responders. “Part of the process which leads to a meaningful life involves something that has an impact, something that matters,” he says. “And that usually involves other people.”

In his book “Transformed by Trauma: Stories of Posttraumatic Growth,” Tedeschi recounts the story of a military veteran who was badly wounded in Iraq. Thinking that he would bleed to death on the field, the soldier wondered, “Is this it?” After medics saved him, Tedeschi says, “He thought back about how he lived his life and realized it wasn’t going in the direction he wanted it.” He rekindled his love for art and eventually developed art programs for youths as a way to give back to his community. “His life took a whole new direction,” Tedeschi says.

How it happens

PTG is increasingly the subject of academic research to better understand how it happens and what it means. While many people show resilience after adversity, not everyone experiences post-traumatic growth, says Eranda Jayawickreme, a psychologist and professor at Wake Forest University.

Jayawickreme founded the Growth Initiative Lab at the university to delve deeper into the phenomenon. “A lot of studies track people after they have gone through a traumatic event,” he says. But, he adds, much of the research documents perceptions of change and not actual behavioral changes. They also may not track changes that emerge long after the traumatic event.

“If you go through a negative event like a divorce, there’s a long time spent reflecting” on what went wrong and how you could have been a better spouse, Jayawickreme says. So any positive changes stemming from the divorce may take longer to show up.

Deeper knowledge of PTG can help therapists and other professionals pave the way for positive recovery after trauma. It also offers insights on how people can facilitate transformative growth on their own after suffering a trauma—making it more likely that they won’t just get past the trauma but will benefit from it.

“You can learn it with practice,” says Arielle Schwartz, a Boulder, Colo., clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma recovery. Author of the “Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook,” Schwartz calls attention to the importance of developing strong connections with people via support groups, family members and compassionate friends. “If you stay socially engaged, that is linked to a positive outcome,” she says.

Good listeners

Tedeschi stresses the importance of what he calls “expert companionship.” These may be close friends, family, clergy or mental-health professionals who listen for extended periods to trauma survivors’ stories of suffering horror, fear, guilt, shame and confusion. In time, the survivor’s focus shifts away from trauma, moving toward a new life narrative that includes possibilities for a better future.





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