What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger or post-traumatic growth
Last modified: 21-09-2021
Traumatic events are always associated with negative emotions and sometimes result in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, they also often lead to positive changes in the perception of one’s life and to the development of personality, which in psychology is called post-traumatic growth.
A serious accident, sudden death of a loved one, being a victim of physical abuse, or receiving information about a life-threatening illness are examples of events that are called traumatic in psychology. They are associated with death, danger to life, serious injury or risk of serious injury. They cause intense fear and a sense of helplessness. In the long run, they often have negative but sometimes also positive consequences.
Negative effects of traumatic events
Within an hour of the event, an acute stress reaction is often developed. It manifests itself, among others in tension, fainting, numbness, a feeling of unreality, disorientation, avoiding contact with people, anger, despair. Symptoms resolve within 2 days, and if they last longer, they are called acute stress disorder (ASD) or acute posttraumatic disorder. Many people resolve their symptoms within a month, but some develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Research shows that PTSD develops in about a few to a dozen or so percent of people who have suffered trauma. However, the type of traumatic event is of great importance. Among people who have been raped, the risk of PTSD is as high as 45-65%. People taking part in hostilities are also at high risk – about 30 – 40%. PTSD is relatively rare in firefighters and police officers who were involved in a traumatic work-related incident.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder show a number of symptoms. One of the most characteristic are recurrent, involuntary memories of a traumatic event, dreams related to trauma and the so-called flashbacks, i.e. reactions in which the person feels or behaves as if they were involved in this event. Memories of a past event cause a lot of stress, so such people try to avoid places, people or situations that are associated with the event. It also often happens that despite recurring memories, some important aspects of the event are not remembered at all (so-called dissociative amnesia).
Other symptoms include irritability or aggressiveness, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbance, feeling guilty or blaming others for the incident, inability to experience positive emotions.
PTSD is diagnosed if the above symptoms persist for at least one month after the event. However some people develop delayed PTSD, characterized in that the disorder does not develop until six months after the event.
Positive effects of traumatic events
A traumatic event is always associated with pain and suffering, but at the same time it often leads to positive changes in personality and attitude to life.
People who have dealt with their trauma often admit that they now appreciate life more. They attach more importance to small everyday pleasures, and matters that previously seemed most important to them, such as a professional career, are relegated to the background. They establish closer relationships with their loved ones, become more sensitive and open to others. They also often feel stronger mentally. They gain greater confidence in themselves and their abilities, feel that they can cope with any, even extremely difficult situation.
Existential or religious beliefs often change. People who have dealt with the crisis begin to live more consciously and meaningfully, the way they see themselves and the world changes.
Importantly, the concept of post-traumatic growth does not negate the suffering associated with trauma. It does not assume that traumatic events are good and lead to happiness. Posttraumatic growth is a long process. It can last for weeks, months, or even years, and there may be periods of stagnation or even regression in the process of change. It is natural that positive and negative moods often coexist. The person who has experienced the trauma may notice some benefits while still having symptoms of stress or depression.
What influences post-traumatic growth
I believe that the slogan “what does not kill you, makes you stronger” captures the essence of posttraumatic growth, but I do not say that this slogan fits everyone. Some people experience posttraumatic growth and others do not. What it depends on?
One factor that influences this is the intensity of the trauma. The event must be a strong enough challenge to induce changes in the perception of oneself and the world. That is why it is in people who in the first days and weeks have strong symptoms of stress and often PTSD, more positive changes occur than in those people for whom the event was not related to such a strong stress and who did not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. However, it is not a straightforward relationship. If the trauma is too strong and is associated with too much stress and suffering, we may not be able to cope with working through it and personality development will not occur.
Social support is of great importance. It’s easier to work through a trauma if we can share our feelings, emotions and thoughts with someone. Such support is especially important immediately after the traumatic event.
Personality traits and beliefs about the world and oneself are equally important. Posttraumatic growth is more common in people who are convinced that the world is understandable, fair and other people are favorable, and in those who have a high sense of the meaning of life and are able to give meaning to suffering. Religion and an extensive spiritual life help many people to work through their trauma in a positive way.
People with an integrated personality, high extroversion and openness to new experiences also have a better chance of dealing with trauma and benefiting from it. Life optimism and a sense of self-efficacy are also important. It affects the ways of coping with stress and the belief in being able to deal with the situation.
Nina Ogińska-Bulik “Pozytywne skutki doświadczeń traumatycznych, czyli kiedy łzy zamieniają się w perły“, Difin, Warszawa, 2013. ISBN 978-83-7641-875-9
Author: Maja Kochanowska