How to gain strength from adversity

Post-traumatic growth: busting myths about strength and resilience.

Most of us would have heard the saying, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”  While the optimist has always hoped that this is true, science is now telling us that often, it is true. 

Since the 1990s, there has been huge interest in the question of whether, after a trauma, we must succumb to post-traumatic stress, or whether we are able to instead experience post-traumatic growth.  The question isn’t new, as all of the world’s major religions have told us about the transformative power of suffering.  But the new emphasis is more scientific, so we need to ask:  what counts as trauma?  What would growth look like?  And what do we need to watch out for, post-trauma, to ensure we experience growth?

What is trauma?
“Trauma” can refer to any major adversity. This could include being in the midst of a natural disaster, serious illnesses or injuries, or deaths of friends or family. Traumatic experiences could also include any form of assault, abuse or violence as well as things like damage to or theft of our property.  In fact, any adverse event can be traumatic, depending on the situation and our circumstances.  

Dying, surviving, resilience, and thriving 
Health researchers have previously asked whether people can recover to pre-trauma levels after a serious adversity.  Researchers recognised three broad categories for those who had experienced trauma: (1) people who succumbed completely (dying); (2) those who continued to live but in a greatly reduced capacity (surviving); and (3) those who managed to return to pre-trauma functioning.  This last group was deemed resilient. Those three outcomes seemed to be the only choices.  

Now positive psychology proponents have added a fourth outcome:  thriving, by which they mean going beyond the level of functioning the person was at before the catastrophe struck.  The distance between resilience (equal to pre-trauma functioning) and thriving (a higher level of functioning, beyond where the person was before) is the measure of post-traumatic growth, or PTG.

Areas of growth
You might ask, “What kind of growth are we talking about here – and how would it be measured?”  Excellent question!  Health scientists are developing the various tests that will help quantify PTG scientifically.  The good news is that the cases of growth after traumatic events are far outweighing the reports of disorders.  The findings are showing five areas of growth for those who have experienced traumatic events:

  1. Discovery of new opportunities not available before
  2. Closer relationships with others, especially others who suffer
  3. Greater appreciation for life
  4. Greater sense of personal strength
  5. Spiritual growth

Busting the myths 
We probably can’t avoid most of the traumatic events that come our way - life happens, after all.  But researchers are careful to remind us that growth comes from the struggle to cope with the trauma, not from the event itself.  So let’s look at a few of the misconceptions around resilience and thriving.

Resilience is a given – you have it or you don’t.  Well, not exactly.  Resilience is not a trait; it’s a capacity, one we learn and develop. We can all be more resilient than we were before by learning to use our strengths and supportive resources.

Thriving people are independent, tough, and self-reliant.  It’s a great stereotype in Western cultures – the rugged individualist – but the reality is that resilient and thriving people know how to tap into their resources.  Their social networks – friends and family – are some of the most important resources.  Thrivers are able to ask for help when they need it.

Thrivers are immune to stress and negative feelings.  People experiencing PTG have just as much stress and negative emotion as anyone, but they are also able to feel positive emotions, such as joy and gratitude.  Thrivers find meaning and purpose in their lives even as they face loss and trauma.

Adversity makes people stronger.  Many people do experience positive changes after struggling with a crisis.  But it’s not the adversity itself that makes the difference.  If it were, all people experiencing the same adverse event – say, surviving a terrible cyclone – would have equal post-traumatic stress or growth.  Most will have post-traumatic stress for a while.  The thrivers will also maintain positive emotions as they persevere with adaptation, explore the new environment, and learn things that will eventually enable them to build new resources to overcome the difficulty – in the process, they will experience growth.  So it’s not really a question of stress or growth; for thrivers, these both may be present in the recovery process.

A caveat
All this talk of growing because we’ve been through tough times, rather than in spite of them, is exciting.  There is a word of warning, though: believing that we can overcome trauma and be stronger than before is probably helpful to our development but if we take growth as a given, we may have unrealistically high expectations for ourselves and others.  

These types of expectations can do more harm than good, so it is important to take a balanced approach to any traumatic situation. For example, many cancer patients complain about the “prison of positive thinking”, and we are guilty of a profound lack of compassion if we assume that growth will always occur and crisis-stricken people should just “get over it.”  We honour people by acknowledging what they’ve been through.  After all, the saying that “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” contains two possibilities; becoming stronger is only one of them.

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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