In the wake of natural disasters, war, or any other traumatic experience, often times individuals will focus on the net loss of those experiences; in other words, emphasis is placed upon the negative impact of those experiences. And while it is probably not recommended to sugar-coat negative experiences, individuals do not automatically need to assume that a traumatic experience always results in a negative outcome.
This type of thinking, known as post-traumatic growth, places emphasis on positive outcomes rather than always focusing on negative outcomes.
According to authors in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry – who published a paper earlier this year titled “Posttraumatic Growth in Low-Income Black Mothers Who Survived Hurricane Katrina” – “Studies that focus only on the negative effects of disasters, however, may miss the broader picture, which in some cases includes self-reported positive psychological changes known as posttraumatic growth (PTG).”
The authors of the study continue: “The concept of personal growth through suffering is an ancient one, expounded on by writers through the ages, from Ancient Greek playwrights like Aeschylus, to the biblical stories of Job, to Nietzsche. After the Second World War, existentialist and humanist writers such as psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who lived through the concentration camps, noted that making meaning out of suffering was central to successful human adaptation. Subsequent theorists . . . described growth resulting from cognitive processing wherein trauma survivors sought to rebuild their ‘assumptive worlds’ that had been shattered by trauma so as to establish safety and meaning.”
In other words, post-traumatic growth, although it has not always been called that, has been around for a long time. As noted above, authors such as Viktor Frankl in the aftermath of WWII focused on what can be learned after a traumatic experience. Additionally, decades before Frankl wrote, the German philosopher Nietzsche wrote a lot about how strength can be derived from pain, so these ideas are not new.
That said, however, as illustrated by the abovementioned study, researchers continue to probe this topic, as it remains relevant.
“[Post-traumatic growth] consists of positive psychological changes that arise from experiencing new opportunities that come to light as a result of a traumatic experience, as well as through the cognitive and emotional processing of trauma-related thoughts, sensations, emotions and memories,” the authors write. They continue: “[Previous research] identified five domains of PTG that they included as subscales in their PTG assessment instrument, the now widely used Posttraumatic Growth Inventory. These five domains are improved relating to others, enhanced spirituality, and a greater sense of personal strength, new possibilities, and appreciation for life” (my emphasis).
To conclude, post-traumatic growth stems from the aftermath of a traumatic event. As noted, although much emphasis has been placed upon the problems that emerge in the aftermath of terrible events, the silver lining is that positive growth is possible. Although more research in this area is needed, so far, the body of literature remains encouraging.
Manove, E. E., et al. (2019). Posttraumatic Growth in Low-Income Black Mothers Who Survived Hurricane Katrina. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 89(2), 144–158.