‘He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.’
— AESCHYLUS, AGAMEMNON
The vast majority of studies examining the effects of trauma on the individual have concentrated on the negative effects such as depression, anxiety, phobias, flashbacks, nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and so on. However, more recently, an increasing number of studies have focused on how the experience of trauma may, in some ways, actually benefit us.
Indeed, the ADVERSITY HYPOTHESIS puts forward the proposal that adversity and suffering are necessary for optimum human development.
Closely linked to the adversity hypothesis is the concept of posttraumatic growth (PTG).
The theory of posttraumatic growth suggests that some individuals who undergo traumatic experiences find that they grow and develop as a person in beneficial ways once the trauma is over. These benefits often include :
- Discovering/developing strengths and abilities that weren’t apparent prior to the traumatic experience and becoming a more confident person as a result.
- Feeling stronger as a person in the knowledge one can survive great difficulty and suffering.
- Developing a greater appreciation of life once the trauma is over.
- Strengthening of pre-existing valuable and meaningful friendships/bonds/relationships (the colloquial expression ‘finding out who your real friends are’ is of relevance here).
- Gaining of a better perspective on life.
- Gaining insight into life’s priorities and what one really wants to do with it to make it fulfilling – often leading to decisive and positive life-change.
- Gaining a deeper insight into life in general leading to spiritual growth and development.
Indeed, there may well be other benefits, but the above list represents the main ones so far highlighted by the research carried out to date.
It is also worth noting that research carried out by Pennebaker (1990) suggests that if we are able to ‘make sense of’ our traumatic experiences in a way that is meaningful to us we are particularly likely to benefit from posttraumatic growth.
Also, research by Helgeson (2006) suggests that individuals are most likely to start to benefit from posttraumatic growth if their traumatic experiences ceased two years ago or more.
COPING PROCESS OR OUTCOME?
Whether posttraumatic growth represents an active coping process or is a more passive outcome of the experiencing of trauma (or, indeed, is a combination of the two) is still a matter of debate amongst psychologists; notwithstanding this, not everyone who experiences trauma also experiences posttraumatic growth.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).