Author: Natalie Gela, Ph.D., Associate Director of Trauma Program, Compass Health Center Northbrook
Around the world, individuals are experiencing psychological distress as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden stress and fear coupled with global loss and isolation that have emerged from this crisis has the potential to lead to psychological trauma. This isn’t to say we won’t recover—we will. It is also possible that we will emerge collectively stronger because of this unprecedented time.
Posttraumatic growth (PTG), coined in the mid-1990s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D., and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D., is defined as, “perceiving positive self-change originating in the struggle with trauma.” At first glance, the concept of PTG appears to have the makings of an oxymoron. After all, “growth” and “trauma” are typically thought of as opposite poles of two very different continuums of life experiences. One term is associated with health and development, the other with suffering and pain. Yet, as the study of trauma has evolved, we have come to understand that individuals can experience positive, meaningful psychological changes as a result of struggling with traumatic and stressful life events.
5 ways in which PTG may occur for individuals who have experienced trauma:
- An increased appreciation of life
- Improved relationships with others
- Identifying new possibilities in life
- Increased personal strength
- Spiritual growth
Although available research has identified these specific changes, it is also possible that trauma survivors may experience positive change following trauma in additional, important ways that do not fit into these five categories.
Beyond simply defining and describing PTG, it is important to understand how PTG may develop. PTG does not develop immediately in the aftermath of trauma. In this way, PTG is different from the concept of “resilience” – often confused with PTG – which is indicative of a relatively quick return to one’s baseline level of functioning following the experience of trauma or another type of stressful event.
Instead, PTG is thought to develop as a result of a period of struggle in the aftermath of trauma that appears to involve significant re-evaluation of the way an individual previously thought about and understood themselves/other people/the world around them, as well as making meaning of and processing the psychological and emotional impact of a traumatic event(s). It is possible that this kind of growth may be fostered through various pathways. For some, this may occur during and/or as a result of engaging in mental health treatment, which can provide the opportunity to explore and process one’s beliefs and emotions.
PTG is not a rare or unique experience. It is estimated that half to two-thirds of people who have experienced a traumatic or stressful event may experience PTG.
So, what can we gather from this knowledge of PTG during the COVID-19 pandemic? One take-away is simply the awareness and understanding that growth may be possible even in the midst of distress and pain. Importantly, this does not mean that the significance of experiencing and coping with trauma is minimized in any way. Instead, PTG may represent the existence of another possible, perhaps more hopeful, pathway following the experience of trauma.
If you would like to learn more about our Trauma Program and see if our services are a possibility for you, we encourage you to reach out to us to learn more.
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