Growth After Trauma

Why are some people more resilient than others—and can it be taught?

 

By Lorna Collier
November 2016, Vol 47, No. 10
Print version: page 48

As Kay Wilson struggled to make her way through a Jerusalem forest after being repeatedly stabbed by a Palestinian terrorist, she distracted herself from her agony by playing the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in her mind, composing a new piano arrangement while she fought for breath and forced herself to put one bare foot in front of the other. Wilson, then 46, had been working as a tour guide when, on Dec. 18, 2010, she and a friend were ambushed by terrorists. Wilson witnessed her friend’s murder and was herself viciously stabbed with a machete, ultimately playing dead as her attacker plunged his knife into her chest a final time. She eventually recovered from her severe physical wounds and is healing from her psychological trauma. She now speaks to global audiences about her survival, hoping to “dispel hatred, whether toward Arabs or Jews.” The work “helps me make meaning out of something so senseless,” says Wilson, who is also writing a book about her experiences. After the attack, Wilson had flashbacks and deep survivor’s guilt. But like many people who have survived trauma, she has found positive change as well—a new appreciation for life, a newfound sense of personal strength and a new focus on helping others.

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a theory that explains this kind of transformation following trauma. It was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, in the mid-1990s, and holds that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward. “People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life,” says Tedeschi. How can clinicians use PTG theory to help patients? How has new research helped refine understanding of it? Here’s a look at developments in the field.

 

Signs of Post-Traumatic Growth

PTG can be confused with resilience, but the two are different constructs. “PTG is sometimes considered synonymous with resilience because becoming more resilient as a result of struggle with trauma can be an example of PTG—but PTG is different from resilience,” says Kanako Taku, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Oakland University, who has both researched PTG and experienced it as a survivor of
the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan. “Resiliency is the personal attribute or ability to bounce back,” says Taku. PTG, on the other hand, refers to what can happen when someone who has difficulty bouncing back experiences a traumatic event that challenges his or her core beliefs, endures psychological struggle (even a mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder), and then ultimately finds a sense of personal growth. It’s a process that “takes a lot of time, energy and struggle,” Taku says. “Someone who is already resilient when trauma occurs won’t experience PTG because a resilient person isn’t rocked to the core by an event and doesn’t have to seek a new belief system,” explains Tedeschi. Less resilient people, on the other hand, may go through distress and confusion as they try to understand why this terrible thing happened to them and what it means for their world view.

To evaluate whether and to what extent someone has achieved growth after a trauma, psychologists use a variety of self-report scales. One that was developed by Tedeschi and Calhoun is the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI) (Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1996). It looks for positive responses in five areas:
 Appreciation of life.
 Relationships with others.
 New possibilities in life.
 Personal strength.
 Spiritual change.
“The scale is being revised to add new items that will expand the ‘spiritual change’ domain,” says Tedeschi. This is being “to incorporate more existential themes that should resonate with those who are more secular” as well as reflect cross-cultural differences in perceptions of spirituality.

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Blog was an excerpt from: Collier, L. (2016, November). Growth After Trauma – Why are some people more resilient than others—and can it be taught? The American Psychological Association47(10), 48-50. doi:http://www.apamonitor-digital.org/apamonitor/201611?pg=51#pg51