We’ve all heard the cliches about personal suffering:
- It’s always darkest before the dawn.
- Adversity builds character.
- A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.
- The path to success is paved with failure.
Each of these statements express the sentiment that pain is a necessary precursor to experiencing true success, happiness, or some other desired state of being.
When someone that we care about is struggling, we sometimes reach for these or similar sayings in an attempt to provide them with a sense of hope.
But when a person has endured a particularly devastating experience, do words like these carry even the slightest truth? Or are we merely compounding their distress by repeating common myths about trauma?
The Prevalence of Trauma
It is no exaggeration to note that trauma is a common experience in the United States. For example:
- The National Center for PTSD estimates that the lifetime prevalence of trauma in the U.S. is 60% among adult men and 50% among adult women.
- According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 61% of adults who were surveyed reported having at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) prior to age 18.
- The CDC survey also revealed that about 15% of adults said they had lived through four or more ACEs before their 18th
The statistics vary from source to source, but virtually every reputable study suggests that the majority of Americans will be impacted by trauma at some point in their lives.
However, despite the virtual ubiquity of trauma throughout our nation, the question of how traumatic occurrences affect people has yet to be authoritatively answered.
Does trauma diminish our ability to live healthier lives? Or can trauma actually be the catalyst that promotes beneficial change? Many experts have weighed in on this matter, but they are far from a consensus.
Does Trauma Promote Personal Growth?
As the cliches at the top of this post indicate, many people have a strong desire to view trauma as a springboard to a healthier future. In clinical terms, this phenomenon is often referred to as post-traumatic growth, or PTG.
The theory of post-traumatic growth was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, in the 1990s. Tedeschi and Calhoun posited that PTG is related to the following five factors:
- Relating to others
- New possibilities
- Personal strength
- Spiritual change
- Appreciation of life
Tedeschi expanded on his view of PTG in the July-August 2020 edition of the Harvard Business review magazine.
“Although posttraumatic growth often happens naturally, without psychotherapy or other formal intervention, it can be facilitated in five ways: through education, emotional regulation, disclosure, narrative development, and service,” he wrote.
To measure a person’s personal development in the aftermath of trauma, Tedeschi and Calhoun developed the posttraumatic growth inventory, or PTGI.
- The PTGI contains 21 statements (such as “I changed my priorities about what is important in life” and “I have more compassion for others”).
- Trauma survivors rate their experience with each of the 21 statements on a scale from 0 (“I did not experience this change as a result of my crisis”) to 5 (“I experienced this change to a very great degree as a result of my crisis).
- Each of the questions on the PTGI aligns with one of the five factors in the previous bulleted list. (For example, “I changed my priorities about what is important in life” aligns with the “Appreciation of life” factor.)
- Thus, in addition to providing people with an overall personal growth score, the PTGI can also help a mental health professional chart a client’s progress (or lack thereof) in direct relation to each of the five factors.
In the years since Tedeschi and Calhoun published their initial article about PTG, other researchers have studied the ability of trauma survivors to achieve personal growth. Here are summaries of two such research efforts:
- An analysis of 3,157 U.S. military veterans found that 50.1% of all veterans and 72% of those who had been diagnosed with PTSD demonstrated “at least moderate [post-traumatic growth] in relation to their worst traumatic event.”
- A research team that conducted a meta-analysis of 26 PTG articles noted that, “Nearly half of the investigated individuals reported moderate-to-high [post-traumatic growth] after experiencing a traumatic event.”
However, not everyone is convinced that trauma can be a source of personal growth. Some experts have described the relationship between trauma and personal growth as “complicated,” while others have suggested that this type of growth may simply be a trauma myth.
Is Posttraumatic Growth a Myth?
In a 2016 article titled “The Trouble with Post-Traumatic Growth,” clinical psychologist Anthony Mancini, PhD, claimed that most PTG studies are inherently flawed because they are incapable of differentiating between perception and reality.
“It turns out that it is very difficult to separate these two things: the perception that we are better and the actuality that we are,” Mancini wrote. “In fact, almost no studies separate perceived and actual growth for a very good reason. It is extraordinarily difficult to know how someone is doing before a trauma occurs.”
In his article, Mancini cited a 2009 study on self-reported posttraumatic growth:
- This study involved 1,500 undergraduate students at four large U.S. universities.
- Students were assessed at the beginning of the semester, and then again at the end of the semester.
- The research team identified 122 students who had a traumatic experience during the semester.
- Students who claimed to have experienced personal growth in the aftermath of the traumatic occurrence actually showed higher levels of distress from the beginning to the end of the semester.
Although Mancini acknowledged that it is possible to use adversity as motivation for beneficial change, he described perceived posttraumatic growth as a “positive illusion.”
Mancini’s article and the 2009 study he referenced are not the only sources to suggest that personal growth as a result of significant adversity may be a trauma myth.
In July 2022, social sciences writer Sujata Gupta reported the following about the myth of personal growth after trauma:
- Presenters at the 2022 Association for Psychological Science conference in Chicago described accounts of posttraumatic growth as “largely illusory” due to improperly conducted research.
- Psychologist Eranda Jayawickreme of Wake Forest University said that societal expectations can force trauma survivors to downplay the negative effects they are experiencing. The pervasive desire for positivity in the aftermath of trauma, Jayawickreme said, promotes “toxic cultural narratives.”
- In an as-yet unpublished study, trauma researcher Adriel Boals of the University of North Texas asked trauma survivors if they made positive changes because of a traumatic experience or despite their history of trauma. About 50% of the study subjects, Gupta wrote, said they believed that they changed despite – not because of — the traumatic event.
- According to a 2015 Norwegian study, soldiers who said they achieved the highest personal growth five months after the end of their deployment to Iraq were found to have the most severe PTSD symptoms 10 months later.
It is important to remember that the debate over posttraumatic growth is focused on areas such as what causes the growth, how to accurately measure it, and if reports of growth mask continued distress.
This debate does not question whether or not a person can heal after trauma. With proper professional care, people who have a history of untreated trauma can achieve significant improvements in their mental health and overall quality of life.
Learn More About Trauma Treatment
Crownview offers comprehensive treatment for adults whose lives have been disrupted by acute symptoms of trauma, PTSD, and other complex mental health concerns. To learn more about our programming, or for help determining if our center is the ideal environment for someone that you care about, please contact us at your earliest convenience.