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Friedrich Nietzsche famously said: “What does not kill us, makes us stronger.” It’s great catch phrase used in songs and movies, but can surviving traumatic events actually lead to a positive outcome?
That’s a question people have been asking themselves throughout history. For thousands of years, humans have been telling stories about an ordinary hero going on an adventure, who overcomes challenges agains all odds and then comes home transformed.
When you’re in the middle of a war zone, lying in a hospital bed or grieving a loved one, it’s hard to see how anything good could ever come from that. But science shows that traumatic events not only cause immense distress, but can also provide an opportunity for personal change, namely post-traumatic growth.
What is post-traumatic growth exactly?
Post-traumatic growth is defined as “the positive psychological changes experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances”. Basically, it’s the idea that experiencing hardship can eventually lead to personal transformation.
We all have basic assumptions about ourselves, the world around us and what life has in store for us. When we experience a traumatic event like a car accident, an act of violence or becoming seriously ill overnight, it can shake or even shatter those core beliefs. Suddenly, it may become hard to believe that the world is a happy place, that love can conquer all or that you can be whatever you want if you just try hard enough.
In an effort to rebuild beliefs about our identity and future, we tend to re-examine our lives. And sometimes, often unexpectedly, we discover that over time we’ve developed a new way of thinking, feeling and behaving as a result of that life-altering experience.
So how do you go from pain to personal growth?
When you’ve gone through hell, your first instinct is to try to make sense of the situation. Thoughts run through your mind, reliving awful moments and evoking strong emotions. You probably feel like you don’t have any control over your thoughts and feelings.
Research discovered that the trauma survivors who manage to handle their emotions relatively well after that first shock, actively seek information that helps them cope with what’s happened. That kind of deliberate rumination turns out to be much more constructive in rewriting your story than automatically going over and over the event in your mind. It gives you a deeper understanding and new meaning of the traumatic situation.
This transformation in your cognitive and emotional life also translates into new behaviors, like taking up a healthy lifestyle, quitting your dead-end job or standing up for yourself. All these positive changes combined is what we call post-traumatic growth.
It’s important to note that post-traumatic growth does not ignore how deeply hurt and affected you may be from highly challenging experiences. Actually, the more stress you experience, the more post-traumatic growth you gain afterwards. That’s probably because surviving stage IV cancer challenges your core beliefs much more than healing a broken arm does. What post-traumatic growth mostly shows, is your capacity to learn from extreme adversity and flourish despite the scars it’s left behind.
What does post-traumatic growth look like?
Post-traumatic growth is both a process you go through and an outcome. It’s not something that happens overnight, nor does it have a clear start and ending. Post-traumatic growth also encompasses more than ‘just’ bouncing back from adversity – that’s resilience. It implies you’ve gained something positive from facing hardship, things like:
- Personal strength. After a major life challenge, many people have more confidence in their abilities and feeling better equipped to face new challenges. You may also feel more like a survivor rather than a victim of circumstances.
- Appreciation for life. When you’re confronted with loss and uncertainty, you start to notice all the things you’ve taken for granted. It becomes more clear what’s really important to you.
- Improved relationships. Getting through crisis together can form unbreakable bonds. After hardship, you may feel more compassionate, a stronger connection with the people in your life and a better ability to express emotions safely and constructively.
- Spiritual change. Like an earthquake, traumatic events can shake how you view the world and your place in it. You start to reflect on the big questions in life, find a higher meaning or take comfort in religious teachings.
- New opportunities. We all know stories of people who turned their lives around, started a completely different career or traveled the world after enduring hardship. In a way, life-threatening experiences are the ultimate test if you’re living the life you dream of.
What Can You Do to Promote Post-Traumatic Growth?
Post-traumatic growth doesn’t happen automatically, nor does it happen to all of us. And that’s ok. It’s completely normal to struggle after going through a life-changing experience, and you have every right to feel sad, angry and desperate. Getting back to baseline levels is already a great achievement, so don’t feel like you have to strive for growth on top of that. You can’t force that kind of new-found appreciation for life.
But if you would like to turn your pain into positive change, here are some science-backed things you can do to promote post-traumatic growth.
1. Manage negative emotions
Anger, anxiety, self-doubt and grief are common reactions when something horrible has happened to you. Those emotions can be so overwhelming, you may feel like running away from them and drowning yourself in work, wine or ice cream. But blocking out negative thoughts and feelings can actually make things worse. Unconsciously, it makes you focus more on the things you’re trying to avoid. What’s more, you miss out on positive experiences that could help you find new meaning and joy again.
So learn more constructive ways to deal with negative emotions. Don’t get stuck into automatic negative thinking patterns, and try techniques to stop overthinking. Find a safe outlet for your feelings, like moving your body, journaling or working with your hands. You could also practice mindfulness to calm your body and mind.
Another very effective way to regulate your emotions is…
2. Seek support
Social support has a big impact on your psychological wellbeing – and that’s even more true in times of need. Studies show that the more support bereaved caregivers received, the more they experienced post-traumatic growth.
Opening up about your feelings and connecting with others help you to deliberately process what’s happened to you. Instead of bottling up your emotions, you can slowly start to see the traumatic event into a different light. This helps you to create a new narrative about yourself and your life.
So reach out to family and friends you trust. Share your story with a professional or others who’ve gone through similar hurtful experiences. Talking about your problems can help you much more than you might think.
3. Practice Deliberate Rumination
One of the most crucial steps in reaching post-traumatic growth is moving from automatic, intrusive rumination – when upsetting thoughts keep popping up in your mind, outside of your control – to more deliberate rumination.
Instead of simply going over the traumatic event again and again in your mind, you purposely reflect upon what’s happened. You look for information that will help you get a deeper understanding, to connect the dots or fill in the blanks. Over time, this deliberate rumination leads to finding new meaning in life.
If you tend to get stuck in your mind, journaling could help you to put your feelings into words and literally rewrite your story.
4. Engage in spirituality
Meaning making plays a big role in coping. After all, losing your health, loved one or home can change everything you used to believe about yourself and life. Religion and spirituality can be helpful in rebuilding your core beliefs.
Studies show that believing in something bigger than yourself acts like a trigger for post-traumatic growth. Praying in any way it feels comfortable and studying holy scriptures or philosophy can bring you comfort, makes you reflect on existential questions and helps to put the pieces back together.
5. Get help when needed
You may feel reluctant to share your deepest thoughts and feelings with a stranger, but don’t muddle on for too long. There’s no shame in asking for help when you’ve been through a life-changing event.
So contact your doctor or talk to a counselor. You don’t have to brave this on your own when there’s help available. EMDR proves to be an effective therapy tool to reduce the intensity and frequency of reliving past trauma, while Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help you deal with intrusive thoughts and emotions in a constructive way.
Research suggest that trauma therapy can play an important role in promoting post-traumatic growth, so please get professional help when you need it.
Would you like to further identify and develop your strengths for growing beyond trauma? Check out The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook by Richard Tedeschi, the professor who co-created the concept of post-traumatic growth.
Of course you wish that you’d never gotten sick, assaulted or bereaved. But now that you are confronted with pain and loss, it may be helpful to know that over time, you can turn your wounds into wisdom.
What’s helping you to move from pain to post-traumatic growth?
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