Posttraumatic Growth

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my research is being shaped by the events of the past two years. My latest pursuits, with my colleague Scott, involve examining how online dating profiles of widows and widowers serve as a springboard to their "new" lives - and illustrate how they are incorporating their loss into their narratives of self.

In the process of researching this topic, I came upon the following article. If you ever feel sympathy for me, I urge you to read this excerpt. It describes the concept of "posttraumatic growth," the general phenomenon that I've been alluding to through my posts.

While I do feel sad when I'm "in it," I also feel that my experiences have given me some things I wouldn't ever want to live without - a deeper understanding of what "it's" really all about, the beauty of each and every connection I have with people around me, as well as a sense of my own personal strength. Apparently, all of these developments are well documented in the aftermath of traumatic events of all kinds.

Through human suffering is where we find beauty. Not necessarily Happiness, per se... but beauty.

Posttraumatic Growth: A New Perspective on Psychotraumatology

There is a long tradition in psychiatry, reaching at least back to World War I, of studying the response of people who are faced with traumatic circumstances and devising ways to restore them to psychological health. The main focus of this work has been on the ways in which traumatic events are precursors to psychological and physical problems. This negative focus is understandable and appropriate to the requirements of these contexts. However, only a minority of people exposed to traumatic events develop long-standing psychiatric disorders.

Although not prevalent in either clinical or research settings, there has been a very long tradition of viewing human suffering as offering the possibility for the origin of significant good. A central theme of much philosophical inquiry--and the work of novelists, dramatists and poets--has included attempts to understand and discover the meaning of human suffering (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 1995). In the 20th century, several clinicians and scientists have addressed the ways in which critical life crises offered possibilities for positive personal change (e.g., Caplan, 1964; Frankl, 1963; Maslow, 1970; Yalom and Lieberman, 1991). However, the widespread assumption that trauma will often result in disorder should not be replaced with expectations that growth is an inevitable result. Instead, continuing personal distress and growth often coexist (Cadell et al., 2003).

In the developing literature on posttraumatic growth, we have found that reports of growth experiences in the aftermath of traumatic events far outnumber reports of psychiatric disorders (Quarantelli, 1985; Tedeschi, 1999). This is despite the fact that we are concerned with truly traumatic circumstances rather than everyday stressors. Reports of posttraumatic growth have been found in people who have experienced bereavement, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV infection, cancer, bone marrow transplantation, heart attacks, coping with the medical problems of children, transportation accidents, house fires, sexual assault and sexual abuse, combat, refugee experiences, and being taken hostage (Tedeschi and Calhoun, in press).

The Domains of Posttraumatic Growth

The kinds of positive changes individuals experience in their struggles with trauma are reflected in models of posttraumatic growth that we have been building (Calhoun and Tedeschi, 1998) and in a measure of posttraumatic growth that we developed based on interviews with many trauma survivors (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 1996).

These changes include:

  • improved relationships
  • new possibilities for one's life
  • a greater appreciation for life
  • a greater sense of personal strength and spiritual development.

There appears to be a basic paradox apprehended by trauma survivors who report these aspects of posttraumatic growth: Their losses have produced valuable gains.

We also find that other paradoxes are involved. For example: "I am more vulnerable, yet stronger." Individuals who experience traumatic life events tend to report--not surprisingly--an increased sense of vulnerability, congruent with the experience of suffering in ways they may not have been able to control or prevent. However, these same people also may report an increased sense of their own capacities to survive and prevail (Calhoun and Tedeschi, 1999).

Another experience often reported by trauma survivors is a need to talk about the traumatic events, which sets into motion tests of interpersonal relationships--some pass, others fail. They also may find themselves becoming more comfortable with intimacy and having a greater sense of compassion for others who experience life difficulties.

Individuals who face trauma may be more likely to become cognitively engaged with fundamental existential questions about death and the purpose of life. A commonly reported change is for the individual to value the smaller things in life more and also to consider important changes in the religious, spiritual and existential components of philosophies of life. The specific content varies, of course, contingent on the individual's initial belief system and the cultural contexts within which the struggle with a life crisis occurs. A common theme, however, is that after a spiritual or existential quest, philosophies of life can become more fully developed, satisfying and meaningful. It appears that for many trauma survivors, a period of questioning their beliefs is ushered in because existential or spiritual issues have become more salient and less abstract.

Although firm answers to the questions raised by trauma--why do traumatic events happen, what is the point to my life now that this trauma has occurred, why should I continue to struggle--are not necessarily found, grappling with these issues often produces a satisfaction in trauma survivors so that they are experiencing life at a deeper level of awareness. It should be clear by now that the reflections on one's traumas and their aftermath are often unpleasant, although necessary in reconstructing the life narrative and establishing a wiser perspective on living that accommodates these difficult circumstances. Therefore, posttraumatic growth does not necessarily yield less emotional distress.

Cognitive Engagement and Growth

A central theme of the life challenges that are the focus here is their seismic nature (Calhoun and Tedeschi, 1998). Much like earthquakes can impact the physical environment, traumatic circumstances, characterized by their unusual, uncontrollable, potentially irreversible and threatening qualities, can produce an upheaval in trauma survivors' major assumptions about the world, their place in it and how they make sense of their daily lives. In reconsidering these assumptions, there are the seeds for new perspectives on all these matters and a sense that valuable--although painful--lessons have been learned.

Dr. Tedeschi is professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Dr. Calhoun is professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Both authors have written three books and numerous articles on posttraumatic growth.


Antoni MH, Lehman JM, Kilbourn KM et al. (2001), Cognitive-behavioral stress management intervention decreases the prevalence of depression and enhances benefit finding among women under treatment for early-stage breast cancer. Health Psychol 20(1):20-32 [see comment].

Cadell S, Regehr C, Hemsworth D (2003), Factors contributing to posttraumatic growth: a proposed structural equation model. Am J Orthopsychiatry 73(3):279-287.

Calhoun LG, Tedeschi RG (1998), Posttraumatic growth: future directions. In: Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis, Tedeschi RG, Park CL, Calhoun LG, eds. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, pp215-238.

Calhoun LG, Tedeschi RG (1999), Facilitating Posttraumatic Growth: A Clinician's Guide. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Calhoun LG, Tedeschi RG (2000), Early posttraumatic interventions: facilitating possibilities for growth. In: Posttraumatic Stress Intervention: Challenges, Issues, and Perspectives, Violanti JM, Paton D, Dunning C, eds. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas Publishers, pp135-152.

Caplan G (1964), Principles of Preventive Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.

Frankl VE (1963), Man's Search for Meaning; An Introduction to Logotherapy, Lasch I, trans. Boston: Beacon Press.

Maslow AH (1970), Motivation and Personality, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row.

McAdams DP (1993), The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. New York: W. Morrow.

Quarantelli EL (1985), An assessment of conflicting views on mental health: the consequences of traumatic events. In: Trauma and Its Wake: The Study and Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, vol. 1b, Figley CR, ed. New York: Brunner-Mazel, pp173-218.

Tedeschi RG (1999), Violence transformed: posttraumatic growth in survivors and their societies. Aggression and Violent Behavior 4(3):319-341.

Tedeschi RG, Calhoun LG (1995), Trauma & Transformation: Growing in the Aftermath of Suffering. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Tedeschi RG, Calhoun LG (1996), The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: measuring the positive legacy of trauma. J Trauma Stress 9(3):455-471.

Tedeschi RG, Calhoun LG (in press), Posttraumatic growth: conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psych Inquiry.

Yalom ID, Lieberman MA (1991), Bereavement and heightened existential awareness. Psychiatry 54(4):334-345.


Anonymous said...

Although not prevalent in either clinical or research settings, there has been a very long tradition of viewing human suffering as offering the possibility for the origin of significant good.

"[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us."

Romans 5:3

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, Danna.

Love to you,

Anonymous said...

So as I planned on getting to bed by 11 tonight so that i'm not dragging ass during my First day as a grad student tomorrow, i started reading your blog (circa 8:30). After warping ahead past the recent months, holy shit. You are an amazing person, and a great writer. I honestly have never in my life felt this emotional and touched. Mike sounds like a king among men and i have no doubt that i will hear of him for years to come. Bax has some incredible genes. You rock, Danna.

But you really screwed me for day one at newhouse!


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