This blog was written by Dr. Vivien Lee and originally posted on the official blog for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

June is PTSD Awareness Month in Canada. There has been increased awareness of how trauma can impact an individual and develop into Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for some people. PTSD can happen to anyone. Anyone.

We now know a lot about the different impacts trauma can have on us physically, emotionally, and on our abilities to focus and concentrate. And with this knowledge came a number of proven and effective treatments to treat PTSD (please see the National Center for PTSD website).

However, it should be known that there is something else that can happen after suffering from the effects of trauma.. Individuals can also experience posttraumatic growth.

What is Posttraumatic Growth?

Traumatic events can shatter our core beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world in general. They can smash apart the goals that were previously important to us, our beliefs, and our usual ways to cope with stress. This can be absolutely devastating.

Sometimes though, what can happen is that this shattering can push us in a new direction. We may feel broken, but at some point we start to pick up the pieces, and they’re not going to be assembled in exactly the same way as before. Instead of our lives becoming stunted due to these traumatic events, our experiences may be strengthened. This is posttraumatic growth

Moving forward after trauma

After a forest fire comes new growth, and fires are sometimes used to control invasive plants and restore natural habitats. What can emerge may be better and stronger than what was there before. But more often than not, fires can cause massive devastation and loss. No one wants to experience the devastation caused by a fire. And certainly no one wants a trauma to happen. But they do happen. We can’t go back in time and change that, it’s done. So what can help to move us forward?

We can assemble the pieces in new ways that can result in growth. Areas of posttraumatic growth can include:

  • Enhancement of Relationships
    • Valuing and appreciating our relationships more
    • Increases in empathy (i.e., ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes), Humility; or Altruism (i.e., acting out of concern for another, without regard for yourself)
  • Changes in Self-Perception
    • Examples include: resiliency, wisdom, and strength
    • Increased acceptance of your own vulnerability and limitations
    • Changes in Life Philosophy
      Re-evaluating what’s important in life

It is important to note that one can experience growth in one or some of these areas while still experiencing PTSD. One does not have to be “free” of PTSD to also experience some positive changes in their relationships and views of themselves.

It is also important to note that posttraumatic growth is not the same thing as resilience. In fact, people high in resiliency may experience lower levels of posttraumatic growth. This makes sense when you consider that resilience can protect us from the impact of negative events, so someone who is resilient may not experience that “shattering” of beliefs that can lay the foundation for a growth. It can be expected though that posttraumatic growth would increase our resilience to future traumas and stresses.

Posttraumatic growth can’t be “prescribed’. It can be one result of a healing process. Important factors that help provide the fertilizer for growth include:

  • “Expert companionship”
    • Someone who understands what the situation or operational stress is like
    • Someone who understands the experience of trauma & its aftermath
  • Social support
    • Support of partner and loved ones
    • Support of the organization or those involved in environment in which trauma occurred
      • For first responders, support of their unit has been associated with posttraumatic growth
    • Reactions of others to self-disclosures
      • Someone who can listen for extended periods to stories that involve fear, guilt, shame, confusion
    • Learning how to regulate and manage our anxiety reactions in healthy ways
    • Full processing of the trauma(s) and related events in a safe place

Couples can also experience posttraumatic growth together. A recent study of couples after a natural disaster found that one partner’s posttraumatic growth predicted the other partner’s growth through increased responsiveness to each other. This was independent of the quality of their relationship, social support, and individual factors. (Canevello et al., 2016).

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”
– C.S. Lewis

I saw a client for treatment who had experienced more than one horrifying trauma at work. As we worked through his PTSD in treatment, he opened up about a history of anxiety and depression from when he was younger as well as other struggles within himself and communicating with family and close friends. After a lot of hard work, his PTSD eventually improved to the point of full remission.

It was so hard; it was brutal at times.

However, he didn’t just reduce his symptoms. He experienced major positive growth as an individual. Through his hard work in facing his vulnerabilities and challenging himself, he was able to manage his long-standing anxieties, sort through identity issues, assert himself with family and loved ones, and establish a healthy and loving relationship with a partner for the first time.

It was difficult for him to accept the end of the career that he had always wanted and worked so hard towards. However, once he was able to do so, he freed himself to consider his new goals, priorities, and strengths, and choose a different career path based on who he is now. On multiple occasions, he told me that he would never want the traumas to have happened, but he had no regrets because they had forced him to face his fears, allow others in, and challenge himself to make changes and grow as in individual.

Traumas can be horrifying, scary, and devastating. They can sometimes “break” us to our very core. There is help out there if you can take that first brave step and reach out. Not only can you get better, but sometimes you can also grow in ways you never imagined: as an individual, as a couple, as a friend, and as a family, whatever that family looks like.

“We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In times of tragedy, of war, of necessity, people do amazing things. The human capacity for survival and renewal is awesome.”
– Isabel Allende