Moving beyond PTSD to Post Traumatic Growth

I opened my news this week to find the LA Times discussing the issuing of the first-ever tropical storm watch for Southern California, the BBC News reporting on the numbers behind Canada’s worst wildfire season to date and several news outlets covering the tragedies that are still unfolding in Maui.

There is no doubt that climate change is going to continue to pummel us with new recounting tragedies. There’s no avoiding these disasters at this point but that doesn’t mean we should all live trembling in the fear of anticipation or suffering in the aftermath.

As a stress physiologist, I’m often asked how it is that people can remove stress from their lives. You can’t, is the short answer; any more than you can avoid the natural disasters that will continue to befall us. Stress, disaster, and all the anxieties that come with living in unpredictable environments are simply the price of admission for being alive.

That said, there is a great power in knowing that we have the ability to transform that fear into fuel – fuel that either accelerates our misery and victimhood, or fuel that burns clean, pushing us through the discomfort and challenge to new heights of growth.  Amidst the darkness of the uncontrollable tragedies we all endure, there is a concept that holds the promise of transformation and renewal: Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG).

Post-Traumatic Growth refers to the positive psychological changes that individuals can experience in the aftermath of trauma or adversity. While we often discuss the inflammatory results of trauma through the lens of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we often neglect to explore the more positive outcomes that can result from these tragedies. PTG isn’t about denying the pain or glossing over the devastation; rather, it’s a recognition that even in the midst of chaos, there is an opportunity for personal and collective growth.

Post-Traumatic Growth often manifests through enhanced connections both to self and others. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, individuals often discover an inner strength they didn’t know they possessed. The resilience displayed during these challenging times can serve as a foundation for further personal growth. Additionally, the interpersonal bonds formed and nurtured in times of crisis can foster a greater sense of connection and compassion among individuals and communities. People often come together to support each other, strengthening the social fabric.

Research has also highlighted that post-trauma, people often discover:

  1.  Novel potential and possibilities. Communities and individuals may find themselves reimagining their lives, embracing new opportunities, and pursuing paths they might have never considered before.
  2. Positive shifts in spirituality. Many find solace and a sense of purpose in spirituality or a higher power during times of turmoil. The search for meaning can lead to profound spiritual growth and a deepening of one’s faith.
  3.  A greater sense of gratitude for life. When faced with the fragility of life and the loss of material possessions, people tend to reevaluate their priorities. This can lead to a newfound appreciation for the simple pleasures of life and a deeper sense of gratitude.

This phenomenon has been noted among individuals who have faced diverse traumatic experiences, including earthquakes (Guo et al., 2018), hurricanes (Lowe et al., 2013), instances of sexual victimization (Kaye-Tzadok & Davidson-Arad, 2016), acts of terrorism (Butler et al., 2005), and outbreaks like SARS (Cheng et al., 2006).

Shifting towards Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) instead of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD, or moving into PTG from a state of PTSD involves proactive steps to foster resilience and psychological growth in the aftermath of a traumatic event.

While I always recommend seeking the advice of a therapist who can guide you through the healing process you can begin with a “Lift-off” process. 3-2-1.

3- Set a timer and spend three minutes acknowledging the traumatic event. Allow yourself to feel the whole range of your emotions, including sadness, anger, and fear. Suppressing emotions can hinder growth and often lead to avoidance and numbing behaviors that can worsen the effects. Acknowledging our feelings moves them out from our amygdala and emotional processing centers and into our more logical, cognitive frontal lobe where we can being to work on processing them constructively. Often writing or journaling about the event during this 3-minute time block can help get all of the emotions out from the body and into the world.

2 – Take two slow, deep breaths. This signals a transition point for your body. Having just brought up all the emotions and relived the trauma it’s important for you to signal to your body that you are safe. Taking long, slow, deep breaths allows the body to shift from the stress response into the parasympathetic nervous system whose function is to help rest and repair.

1 – Ask one question. Get curious. Curiosity and fear cannot coexist. That brain mechanism doesn’t exist. As a result, as you begin to process the event with curiosity, you can better explore the meaning of the traumatic event in your life. Reflect on how it has shaped your values, priorities, and aspirations. Finding purpose in adversity can foster PTG. This can also help you to begin reshaping the narrative, or the way you view the traumatic event. Instead of seeing it as a solely negative experience, consider what positive changes or growth opportunities might emerge from it.

While natural disasters like the Maui wildfires bring forth immense challenges and heartache, they also present an opportunity for post-traumatic growth. By focusing on personal strength, gratitude, new possibilities, enhanced relationships, and spiritual growth, individuals and communities can navigate the path toward healing and renewal. Even in the face of tragedy, we have the power of hope. And it’s that hope, that lean towards growth even through trauma that will ultimately help us to redefine our narratives and shape a more resilient future.

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