Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Can A Tragedy Be Good For Us?

May 12, 1997

Post-traumatic stress disorder is the long lasting negative effects of trauma on a person's well-being. But have you ever heard of "post-traumatic growth?"

Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte use post-traumatic growth to refer to ways trauma victims see positive outcomes from the trauma they have experienced. Their summary of the research about growth after trauma is in their book, "Trauma and Transformation: Growing in the Aftermath of Suffering," Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Their approach involves looking at bereavement in a new way. They document how people come to recognize the benefits, strengths and personal growth a trauma struggle produces.

Most research shows 40 to 70 percent of victims of who suffer severe burns, traumatic accidents, incest, bereavement, and cancer believe some good has emerged from their traumatic experience. Tedeschi and Calhoun’s research shows findings of 90 percent or more.

Tedeschi and Calhoun outline seven principles to explain how this process of growth occurs:

1. Growth occurs when schemas (understandings of the world) are changed by traumatic events. People are forced to rethink their spiritual beliefs because of the loss of control and meaning the traumatic event has caused. More growth occurs when the suffering person dwells and ruminates extensively on their situation soon after the traumatic event. Their desperate and painful ordeal forces them to struggle and open themselves to a period of rapid learning. They are teachable.

2. Certain assumptions about the world are more resistant to change.

3. The search for meaning and control after trauma happens best when both the self and the world are viewed positively.

4. Growth comes from the response people make to the crisis. It is the response that gives new meaning rather than the type of crisis itself. Growth occurs when a radical lifestyle change or life goal changes have to be made during the crisis.

5. Personality characteristics are related to the possibility for growth. Optimism, extroversion, openness to experience and a tendency to act on the environment make it more likely that a person will engage in radical changes.

6. Growth occurs when the trauma assumes an important role in an individual's life story. It is only upon looking back and seeing the changes that took place that the trauma will carry meaning. People will understand life and themselves much better because of what they learned through the tragic event. The event is a watershed event in the history of one's life and they understand its significance. Also the way one plans to live life is referenced to the learning that took place after the traumatic event.

7. Growth is not the same as "adjustment" or "well-being" and may occur at the same time with psychological distress and pain. Feeling "bad" is independent of experiencing comfort or feeling "good." Distress is more related to growth than well being. Tedeschi and Calhoun state, "Persons who experience significantly negative life events are more likely to report growth than are persons who experience no negative events, and persons who report negative events describe more growth than persons who experience positive events.

They quote a somber observation by writer Reynolds Price, "It's kind of awful to have to conclude that human beings [grow] only through suffering, but it seems to be true." But it becomes less somber when we consider what people typically say about the ways they have grown. They have grown by:

  • Strengthening and deepening relationships. The value and importance of family and friends are appreciated. They develop a greater capacity for intimacy, love and closeness.
  • Learning to turn to others in time of need. Friends, family and others prove to be faithful providers of care, concern and compassionate support. Social support during this critical time imparts a renewed faith in humanity and in community.
  • Learning to become more expressive of emotion. They become more willing to reveal personal and honest information about their true feelings.
  • Learning to be more compassionate and understanding of others.
  • Obtaining a greater understanding of life and its fragility. Life is more precious. They take charge of choosing how they want to live by reordering their priorities. They are willing to try new things. They value the present and are excited by the future. They live life more fully with greater enjoyment and serenity.
  • Strengthening and deepening their religious beliefs and spiritual understandings. They turn to God and take comfort in religious faith. They struggle to find new meaning to life and incorporate the tragic event into renewed trust and hope.
  • Gaining in confidence and self-assurance. Going through the trauma experience helps them see how strong, resilient and resourceful they are. They regained control and defined a new purpose despite the overwhelming negative circumstances they faced.
  • Obtaining a more profound understanding of themselves. They accept their limitations and yet see possibilities in the midst of their trials and the new reality. They are better people because of their ordeal. This wisdom has been purchased with a painful price.