Mental Health Moment: What is Posttraumatic Growth?


Nancy Bergeron, RPsych | [email protected]

Let’s begin with a discussion on trauma and/or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I will refer to these terms as trauma for simplicity. Trauma adopted a language of medicine, in that it’s an illness to be cured by a doctor or therapist. However, we as individuals ultimately must be able to take responsibility for our own recovery and the meaning we give to our experiences. There has also been a culture of expectation in which there is a mistaken assumption that trauma is both inevitable and inescapable. When we are told that we are vulnerable and need help, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The criterion for successful treatment has become the alleviation of trauma, which leads us to disregard the research that shows not only that most of us are resilient, but that many of us find benefits in adversity that can be the springboard to higher levels of functioning than before the trauma. In other words, we are capable of finding pathways to reverse the destructiveness of trauma and turn it into an advantage. We do not have to be the passive recipients of how our lives will unfold.

Posttraumatic growth involves the rebuilding of our shattered assumptive world. This is well explained through the metaphor of the shattered vase. Imagine one day that you knock a treasured vase off the shelf. It smashes into a million pieces. Now what? Do we try to glue all those pieces back together to try to save it? Do we sweep up all the pieces and just throw them away because it’s a total loss? Or do we choose to pick up all of those beautiful, ornate pieces and use them to create something new, different…maybe even better? Picture a stunning mosaic work of art.

When adversity strikes, we often feel that some part of us – our view of the world, sense of ourselves, or maybe our relationships have been decimated. For those of us who try to put our lives back together exactly as they were, we remain fractured in places, and definitely vulnerable to future adversity. However, those of us who are more willing to accept the breakage and decide to build ourselves into something new, become more resilient and open to new possibilities and ways of living and seeing the world.

These changes don’t necessarily mean that we are entirely free of the memories of our fracturing, the grief we have experienced, or other forms of breakage. But we are in fact able to live our lives more meaningfully in light of what has happened.

How do we set ourselves up for posttraumatic growth? First, we need to recognize that life is uncertain and that things change, sometimes for good or bad. Next, we need to practice mindfulness in that we live in the present with a flexible attitude. Lastly, there needs to be an acknowledgment of our personal agency…the sense of responsibility for our choices we make in life and an awareness that our choices come with consequences. The stress from our trauma initially is the engine that drives growth following adversity, letting us know our mental world has been shaken up and that we need to process that event. This is when we can begin to push through the original belief system we held of our assumptive world; that the world is benevolent, that life is controllable and predictable, and that we are good so why did this bad thing happen to me. This is where we come to a realization that we can’t go back to the way things were…our life will never be the same (the vase shattered). However, we can create a beautiful mosaic piece of art (our life) by picking up our broken pieces and using what we learned through the trauma to create a new and possibly more useful way of living and approaching our lives. There are four key things to remember as we are creating growth. 1. We are not alone – seek supports to help us navigate the trauma. Share our experience with others. 2. Trauma is a normal and natural process in living life – most of us will experience forms of depression, anxiety, and detachment after a traumatic event. These can be upsetting but are normal common reactions to trauma. 3. Growth is a journey – each step can be painful, but it can be more painful to not keep moving. We can emerge wiser, more mature, and more fulfilled despite great loss and sadness. 4. Be patient and gentle with ourselves – don’t place unreal expectations on ourselves.

Reading Suggestions: What Doesn’t Kill Us by Stephen Joseph, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, Life lessons: How Our Mortality Can Teach Us About Life and Living by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler.