A new area of Positive Psychology offers another vehicle for investigating the possibilities of personal growth within the context of a distressing and traumatic event. Calhoun and Tedeschi (2006) pioneered the concept of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG), a construct of positive psychological change that occurs as the result of one’s struggle with a highly challenging, stressful, and traumatic event. Posttraumatic Growth is measured by the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). When you take the PTGI, there will be an overall score and then five subscale scores reflecting five factors, which represent your level of PTG. The five factors include Relating to Others (greater intimacy and compassion for others), New Possibilities (new roles and new people), Personal Strength (feeling personally stronger), Spiritual Change (being more connected spiritually), and a deeper Appreciation of Life (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Post-traumatic growth refers to how adversity can often be a springboard to a new and more meaningful life in which people re-evaluate their priorities, deepen their relationships, and find new understandings of who they are. Post-traumatic growth is not simply about coping; it refers to changes that cut to the very core of our way of being in the world. Scientific studies have shown that post-traumatic growth is common in survivors not only of life-threatening illnesses but also other various traumatic events, including disasters, accidents, and violence. Typically 30-70 percent of survivors say that they have experienced positive changes of one form or another. Researchers defined 5 dimensions in which Post Traumatic Growth can be expressed. First, some people discover the notion that new opportunities are available to them, which were unavailable prior to the traumatic event. Secondly, some people discover that they may feel a bond with certain individuals and may specifically have a strong connection with others who have experienced traumatic events. Thirdly, some experience, a fortified sense of self-resiliency, as “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. The forth is where post traumatic growth is illustrated by a greater and fuller appreciation of life in general. The fifth area is more of a spiritual one, where people feel a deeper spiritual commitment to their lives even if this commitment involves a significant change in their set of beliefs and values. Posttraumatic growth theory does not suggest that there is an absence of suffering as wisdom builds, but rather that appreciable growth occurs within the context of pain and loss. In fact, some measure of significant distress may be necessary for growth to occur, although too much distress may impair the bereaved and render them unable to engage in the growth process (Butler et al., 2005). Along with growth or wisdom building, the fruits of PTG may also include a preparedness or “resilience” for future events that may otherwise be traumatic (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2006; Meichenbaum, 2006). Some researchers speculate that PTG is a kind of resilience, while others suggest that resilience plays an important role in the development of PTG (Lepore and Revenson, 2006). Calhoun and Tedeschi conceptualize a complicated relationship between PTG and resilience. Studies have shown an inverse relationship between PTG and resilience where highly resilient people experience less PTG than less resilient people do (Tedeschi & McNally, 2011). Highly resilient individuals may have stronger coping skills and are less likely to struggle with the psychological consequences of trauma, but are also less likely to experience as many opportunities for change that proceed from the emotional wrestling with trauma. Personality traits and mood states, such as extraversion, optimism, positive affect, openness to experience have been positively associated with PTG, while personality traits, such as neuroticism, have been negatively associated with PTG (Linley & Joseph, 2004; Stanton, Bower, & Low, 2006; Costa & McCrae, 1985). Other demographic variables, including gender and socioeconomic status, are also associated with this process (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2006). These characteristics may play a central role in how an individual manages the interruption of one’s life goals or plans through a personal crisis or a trauma (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). After experiencing a traumatic event, people often report three ways in which their psychological functioning increases:
- Relationships are enhanced in some way. For example, people describe that they come to value their friends and family more, feel an increased sense of compassion for others and a longing for more intimate relationships.
- People change their views of themselves in some way. For example, developing in wisdom, personal strength and gratitude, perhaps coupled with a greater acceptance of their vulnerabilities and limitations.
- People describe changes in their life philosophy. For example, finding a fresh appreciation for each new day and re-evaluating their understanding of what really matters in life, becoming less materialistic and more able to live in the present. Research with former prisoners of war who spent up to eight years in Vietnam’s infamous Hanoi Hilton prison confirms two things:
- Most of them experienced positive growth from the experience (and a PTSD rate of only 4 percent)
- Those who experienced the worst trauma (including repeated torture, starvation, solitary confinement and physical injury over many years) reported the most personal growth in the decades after their release.
- Post-traumatic growth is an ongoing process. While none of them expressed a desire to go through the experience again, a number have said they are stronger and better people because of it.
Importantly, and this just can’t be emphasised enough, this does not mean that trauma is not also destructive and distressing. No one welcomes adversity. But the research evidence shows us that over time people can find benefits in their struggle with adversity. Indeed, across a large number of studies of people who have experienced a wide range of negative events, estimates are that between 30 and 70% typically report some form of positive change. Learning Objectives At the end of this session the learner will be able to:
- Explain the concept of Post Traumatic Growth
- Identify the three ways in which psychological functioning increases with PTG
- Discuss the five dimensions in which PTG can be expressed