Trauma can be devastating. It can cause all kinds of psychological problems, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What few people realize, however, is that the same trauma that can cause PTSD can also create PTSG - post traumatic growth.
Post traumatic stress disorder is a negative mental condition that occurs after an individual experiences trauma. It's characterized by severe anxiety, debilitating flashbacks, and recurring disturbing thoughts.
Post traumatic growth refers to the positive psychological changes that can occur after an individual suffers from trauma or lives through highly challenging life circumstances. It's characterized by resilience and the development of a positive response to an undeniably negative situation.
Both post traumatic stress and post traumatic growth develop as the result of trauma.
The question is, why do some people grow from trauma, while others suffer endlessly?
What Trauma Does to Us
In order to understand why similar traumatic experiences can cause some people to suffer a lifetime of anxiety, while others move on to change and grow, you need to start by understanding how trauma affects human beings.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly everyone will feel fear during and after a traumatic or life-threatening event. For most people, that fear subsides over time. But those who develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), continue to have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings about their experience long after the danger has passed.
They continue to feel anxiety and re-live the traumatic event for months or years after the event is over. In other words, they get stuck in their fear.
Post traumatic growth, on the other hand, is the flip-side of post traumatic stress. Post traumatic growth is the positive psychological change that allows people to grow and to have more meaningful lives after trauma than what they had before tragedy struck.
Instead of being crushed by tragedy, people who experience post traumatic growth transcend tragedy and go on to live even happier, healthier lives.
Post Traumatic Stress, Post Traumatic Growth and Divorce
While most people think that PTSD can only be caused by war, disaster, or extreme violence, it can also be caused whenever there is an acute or prolonged trauma. PTSD can happen anytime when your mind can not process the trauma you’ve experienced.
Abusive relationships, especially those that end in a high conflict divorce, can cause PTSD.
At the same time, divorce can also cause post-traumatic growth as well. Some people who have gone through horrific divorces have come out stronger. They use the adveristy they faced in their divorce to create new oportunities and more meaning in their lives.
What determines who will thrive after a traumatic divorce, and who will barely survive?
Why Some People Recover From Divorce While Others Stay Stuck
Like all human behavior, people’s reactions to trauma are complex. While some research suggested that optimists might react more positively to trauma than pessimists, not all optimists grow from their experiences and not all pessimists develop PTSD.
One of the factors that seems to affect your ability to deal with trauma the most is mindset. Having a growth or abundance mindset tends to encourage post traumatic growth. Having a fixed or scarcity mindset tends to allow the development of post traumatic stress.
Dr. David Feldman, PhD, coauthor of Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, describes a growth mindset as one of grounded hope.
Trauma survivors who experience post traumatic growth acknowledge their pain. They are willing to face their own sadness, suffering, anger and grief. They are realistic about what happened to them. But in the midst of their pain, they're able to ask: “Given where I am in my life, how can I build the best future possible?"
People who are willing to face their trauma and can grieve and gradually accept trauma are more likely to experience post traumatic growth. Those who try to deny their feelings or try to just push the experience away don't.
Researchers have also found that the ability to accept situations that cannot be changed is crucial for adapting to traumatic events.
The final key predictor of your reaction to trauma is social support. Being able to talk with others who are supportive can help you process your trauma. It can help you make sense of even the most senseless divorce.
The Five Areas of Post Traumatic Growth
Researchers have studied post traumatic growth in combat veterans, people with life-threatening illnesses, accident survivors, and victims of violence and natural disasters. They have identified five areas of post traumatic growth.
- A greater appreciation of life – After tragedy, even the most mundane details of life can seem extraordinary.
- Increased personal strength – Once you’ve been to hell and back, you’re not nearly as afraid of facing whatever life throws at you next.
- Increased intimacy and better relationships – Living through trauma can make you more compassionate and empathetic to others;
- Recognition of new possibilities or paths in life – Suffering changes your priorities. It can also teach you to see opportunities you may have ignored before.
- Greater spiritual development – Trauma rocks your world view on such a fundamental level that it often causes you to re-think life’s biggest questions.
The Hope of Post Traumatic Growth
For centuries, psychologists and researchers have focused on what’s wrong with the human psyche. But post traumatic growth showcases what’s right with it.
The idea that you can use the pain of an ugly divorce to build a better life afterwards is tremendously encouraging. Knowing that the latest scientific research supports your ability to do that is even better.
Of course, not everyone will experience post traumatic growth. Luckily, research shows that more people are likely to experience post traumatic growth than post traumatic stress disorder. At the same time, growth comes at a cost.
Just because your divorce may make you stronger, doesn’t mean that going through your divorce will be easy or fun. Divorce is painful no matter how many lessons you may learn from it.
Yet, once you know that the way you deal with your divorce, and the mindset you adopt while you’re going through it, can positively change your life afterwards, you start looking at divorce a little bit differently. You start acting and reacting differently.
Most of all, you realize that, no matter how horrible or life-changing your divorce may be, you can grow and rebuild your life afterwards. You start seeing your divorce, not just as the end of your marriage, but as the beginning of your new life.
This post was originally published in August, 2017 and updated on August 30, 2023.