The healing journey after a traumatic event such as abuse, domestic violence, military combat, loss, or other types of psychological upheaval will likely look different for each person. The progress toward greater mental health and emotional well-being, a period during which a person might be participating in psychotherapy and other types of treatment, can be called posttraumatic growth.
Psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD developed the theory of posttraumatic growth in the 1990s. Though the idea of recovering from the effects of trauma was not new, the introduction of posttraumatic growth grew as a systematic study in psychology, social work, science, and counseling because of Tedeschi’s and Calhoun’s influence. Today, it is a concept many therapists use to help inspire people in therapy toward positive change, assess the progress of people healing from trauma, and better understand the transformation process as someone recovers.
What Is Posttraumatic Growth?
At its most simplistic, posttraumatic growth is positive change that can happen for a person after experiencing trauma or a major life crisis. The process might be different based on the type of trauma a person endured, what kinds of therapy the person experiences afterward, and the levels of support they can depend on throughout treatment. As the inverse of posttraumatic stress, or PTSD, posttraumatic growth can be characterized by the signs one is overcoming the harmful effects of trauma.
Some therapists have described posttraumatic growth as synonymous with resilience. But while resilience implies an ability to bounce back after trauma, posttraumatic growth acknowledges a person’s continuous, sometimes lifelong, efforts to move beyond trauma and the effects of PTSD. Putting an emphasis on posttraumatic growth can help focus the therapeutic process not just on someone’s survival after trauma, but their ability to thrive.
What Does Posttraumatic Growth Look Like?
Therapists use various assessment tools to measure the ways in which a person has achieved growth after trauma. One method developed by Tedeschi and Calhoun is called the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI). In this model mental health professionals use five areas to assess for positive change:
- Appreciation of life
- Relationships with others
- New possibilities in life
- Personal strength
- Spiritual change
This template for posttraumatic growth is not universal, and there are many ways it might shift by individual. For example, Tedeschi and Calhoun continue to adjust the indicator of spiritual change given this factor does not always play a part in people’s recovery journeys and might look different based on someone’s cultural background.
Rather than relying on their own interpretations of someone’s growth through the treatment process, mental health professionals use self-reports from people in therapy to measure achievements and successes in healing. Additionally, these markers for improvement can offer more specific objectives for the person in therapy–a chance to focus on individual areas of one’s life, rather than a nebulous idea of what positive change means.
What Contributes to Posttraumatic Growth?
Having the continuous, reliable involvement of a psychotherapist typically helps aid the process of posttraumatic growth. Not only can therapists comprehensively assess how trauma has affected an individual and what aspects of PTSD they may be experiencing, they can also guide the recovery process in a way that offers hope and encouragement. Seeing a therapist after trauma requires some accountability and resolve–both integral elements of posttraumatic growth.
Researchers maintain posttraumatic growth is possible for anyone. At times, even external influences that would seem to be barriers to healing have proven effective.
In addition to therapy, Calhoun and Tedeschi cite a tight personal support network, optimism, and community groups as factors that can help someone move toward posttraumatic growth. Some factors may make a person more predisposed to posttraumatic growth. These include gender (women are statistically more likely to experience posttraumatic growth), the absence of multiple traumatic episodes in one’s past, and in some cases, elevated socioeconomic status.
Still, researchers maintain posttraumatic growth is possible for anyone. At times, even external influences that would seem to be barriers to healing have proven effective. For example, someone in trauma recovery might experience a loss that causes them to take more control over their life and feel even stronger. And older trauma survivors may be more likely to take time to fortify familial bonds or intimate relationships, rather than pushing ahead into redirecting their lives.
Beneficial Effects of Posttraumatic Growth
Trauma can have a far-reaching negative effect on almost any aspect of one’s life. Physical, psychological, and emotional wellness are all at risk when one experiences a life crisis, violence, abuse, or emotional upheaval. Healing from these experiences, in whatever form that takes, is likely to positively impact all aspects of an individual’s life.
Posttraumatic growth can dramatically reduce symptoms of PTSD such as hallucinations, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and depression. It may also help address physical aspects of posttraumatic stress, as PTSD has been linked to cardiovascular disease, chronic fatigue, diabetes, gastrointestinal issues, and more.
Because trauma, PTSD, and co-occurring mental health issues like substance abuse and depression can all have a significant detrimental effect on well-being, any progress toward counteracting these is likely to be beneficial. Posttraumatic growth can only help improve one’s emotional health, psychological well-being, and physical wellness after trauma.
- Boscarino, J. A. (2004). Posttraumatic stress disorder and physical illness: Results from clinical and epidemiologic studies. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1032(1), 141-153. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1196/annals.1314.011/full
- Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (Eds.). (2014). Handbook of posttraumatic growth: Research and practice, 111-113. Routledge: Abingdon, UK.
- Calhoun, L. G., Cann, A., Tedeschi, R. G., & McMillan, J. (2000). A correlational test of the relationship between posttraumatic growth, religion, and cognitive processing. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 13(3), 521-527. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1007745627077
- Collier, L. (2016). Growth after trauma: Why are some people more resilient than others—and can it be taught? American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma.aspx
- Post-traumatic growth. (n.d.) Manitoba Trauma Information & Education Centre. Retrieved from http://trauma-recovery.ca/resiliency/post-traumatic-growth/
- Tedeschi, R. G., Park, C. L., & Calhoun, L. G. (Eds.). (1998). Posttraumatic growth: Positive changes in the aftermath of crisis. Routledge: Abingdon, UK.
- Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(3), 455-471. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jts.2490090305/full
- Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15327965pli1501_01
- Posttraumatic Growth Research Group (n.d.) What is PGT? Posttraumatic Growth Research Group. Retrieved from https://ptgi.uncc.edu/what-is-ptg/
Last Updated: 09-14-2017
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