How Post Traumatic Growth Can Improve Your Health

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Expressing Post-Traumatic Growth
Predictors of Post-Traumatic Growth
References 
Further reading


Traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, natural disasters, and war, can have enduring physical and psychological effects on individuals, shaping their emotional and mental responses for life. While the short-term negative consequences of trauma are well-documented, recent recognition of trauma's role in building coping skills and resilience is emerging as a positive outcome.

Experiencing significant trauma can lead to increased self-reliance, maturity, and improved relationships for some, but for others, it can be psychologically devastating. Numerous studies aim to identify personal and societal characteristics that promote positive responses to trauma, with several factors influencing post-traumatic growth discussed below.

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Expressing Post-Traumatic Growth

Extensive research into the psychology of cancer patients, the seriously ill, and their families has revealed improved attitudes toward themselves, others, and life after trauma. Many individuals report a newfound appreciation for people's friendships, a deeper love of nature, and a renewed interest in religion.

For example, young women who underwent mastectomy due to breast cancer reported enhanced marital relationships and increased empathy among participants and their partners. After recovery, men with testicular cancer reported improved life outlook, self-respect, family relationships, and feelings of accomplishment.

Individuals with a poorer prognosis before recovery often experience more significant psychological benefits, reflecting the relief they feel after overcoming the illness.

Divorce is another life event that often leads to long-term psychological improvements. In the short term, individuals may become more assertive, self-confident, and develop better connections with friends and family outside the former partnership. However, it's important to consider that divorce may arise from situations like abuse or infidelity, where simply escaping an unhealthy environment can contribute to reported mood and behavior changes.

Likewise, individuals who recover from serious illnesses tend to be more optimistic about their future after becoming disease-free, contributing to elevated mood. However, when long-term health effects like disfigurement or loss of function persist, the likelihood of positive psychological improvement is reduced.

Bereavement, unlike certain other traumas, is often permanent, as the loss of a loved one can never be undone. Nevertheless, it frequently results in greater independence, self-reliance, and heightened awareness of life's fragility.

Many individuals who experience bereavement find themselves living more fully and appreciating every moment. Sharing the bereavement experience with others often leads to strong, enduring relationships, as seen among individuals working together in traumatic settings like natural disaster relief or war zones.

From a career perspective, professionals such as soldiers, nurses, and relief workers often report improved teamwork, self-understanding, and a renewed sense of patriotism and freedom following their exposure to traumatic experiences.

What is Post-Traumatic Growth? with Sonja Lyubomirsky

Predictors of Post-Traumatic Growth

Whether an individual experiences long-term positive outcomes from trauma depends on various personal, demographic, and societal factors in addition to the nature of the trauma itself. For instance, the response to a serious illness may differ between individuals, with some receiving support from close family and building stronger bonds, while others affected by a natural disaster may lack a supportive infrastructure.

Similarly, the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one is generally less likely to result in positive psychological changes compared to a well-anticipated death, where feelings of unfairness and loss are more intense. The likelihood of post-traumatic growth following illness recovery is also influenced by the presence of lingering physical defects, affecting both the patient and their loved ones.

An intriguing paradigm emerges regarding the probability of post-traumatic growth, where individuals experiencing more severe trauma are more likely to receive help and form close connections with those providing support. Conversely, those facing overwhelming trauma or where their loved ones are preoccupied with their own trauma tend to have a bleaker outlook, often experiencing relationship distancing and bitterness.

Additionally, factors such as education level, developmental maturity among children, inherent optimism, personality traits, and exposure to past trauma play significant roles in shaping an individual's response to traumatic events. For example, highly educated individuals tend to experience more favorable post-traumatic growth, while optimism fosters problem-focused coping mechanisms and positive long-term expectations. Outgoing and confident personalities often have more sophisticated support networks already in place, aiding in recovery.

Importantly, past exposure to trauma significantly predicts post-traumatic stress, where individuals who have previously experienced similar trauma may exhibit a reduced or neutral response upon repeated exposure, depending on the trauma's magnitude.

References

  • Tedeschi, R. G. & Park, C. L. (1998). Posttraumatic GrowthPositive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis. Routledge, UK.
  • Bostock, L., Sheikh, A. I., & Barton, S. (2009). Posttraumatic Growth and Optimism in Health-Related Trauma: A Systematic Review. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings16(4), 281–296. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10880-009-9175-6
  • Jayawickreme, E., Infurna, F. J., Alajak, K., Blackie, L. E. R., Chopik, W. J., Chung, J. M., Dorfman, A., Fleeson, W., Forgeard, M. J. C., Frazier, P., Furr, R. M., Grossmann, I., Heller, A. S., Laceulle, O. M., Lucas, R. E., Luhmann, M., Luong, G., Meijer, L., Mclean, K. C. & Zonneveld, R. (2021). Post‐traumatic growth as positive personality change: Challenges, opportunities, and recommendations. Journal of Personality89(1), 145–165. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12591

Further reading

Last Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Michael Greenwood

Written by

Michael Greenwood

Michael graduated from the University of Salford with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2023, and has keen research interests towards nanotechnology and its application to biological systems. Michael has written on a wide range of science communication and news topics within the life sciences and related fields since 2019, and engages extensively with current developments in journal publications.  

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