The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center shook an entire nation and the burden of this tragic event remains far reaching in many Americans. But for some survivors, this traumatic event became a catalyst for profound growth. Such seemingly opposing psychological outcomes from a nationwide traumatic event begs the question: Why do some individuals experience positive changes in the aftermath of trauma?
Post-traumatic growth describes the positive psychological changes some experience following challenging or traumatic life circumstances. This goes above and beyond resilience because post-traumatic growth isn’t simply a return to baseline following an adverse event, rather, it describes an experience of growth surpassing what was previously the status quo for an individual. This kind of improvement and sense of renewal can be quite profound for some people.
Research on post-traumatic growth has identified 5 main areas of psychological change described by individuals in the aftermath of traumatic/challenging life events. These areas of growth include:
As we go through life, we develop a set of beliefs about the world and humanity which we come to rely upon to understand and make meaning of our lives. These core assumptions help us to make sense of the world and understand how and why things happen. However, major life crises often present a challenge to one’s understanding of the world and others.
It is argued that post-traumatic growth does not occur as a direct result of a traumatic event but rather from the individual’s struggle with the new reality they become faced with in the aftermath of the trauma (i.e. a new reality that challenges everything they thought they knew about the world). In other words, the way in which an individual processes the trauma and approaches their new reality determines whether post-traumatic growth can occur. After one’s core beliefs and assumptions have been shattered, rebuilding a new and more flexible understanding of the world that incorporates the trauma can lead to a newfound sense of meaning that’s more resistant to being shattered. The result of this process is post-traumatic growth.
Researchers have identified certain factors that can increase the likelihood of an individual experiencing post-traumatic growth after exposure to adverse and/or traumatic life events. These include:
Openness to experience and extraversion are two personality traits that have been found to increase the likelihood of post-traumatic growth. Openness to experience describes being open minded, curious, creative, and interested in new experiences. Individuals who are more open tend to regulate their emotions better than others, which is one way that openness to experience is linked to increased growth.
Extraversion relates to how energetic and outgoing you are. Since extraverted individuals tend to surround themselves with others and reach out to their social support network more, it’s possible that the relationship between extraversion and post-traumatic growth is partly due to increased social support.
The ability to manage and cope effectively with distressing emotions is important for resilience in general but can also influence how likely you are to experience positive growth after adverse experiences. In particular, strategies to regulate one’s emotions such as refocusing attention on planning have been positively associated with post-traumatic growth.
Similarly, emotional intelligence appears to be a particularly important factor in facilitating adaptive psychological functioning after traumatic events. One study found that individuals with higher levels of emotional intelligence tended to show fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder than those with lower levels of emotional intelligence.
Research has found that self-disclosing in supportive social environments facilitates adequately processing one’s trauma to accommodate growth. For survivors of 9/11, social support and social integration were found to be some of the most valuable resources in developing post-traumatic growth.
There seems to be some truth to Friedrich Nietzsche’s popular saying “what does not kill me makes me stronger”. We cannot overlook the fact that traumatic and challenging life events often bring a great deal of pain and sorrow. But there is a silver lining that can be found in the way one handles such difficult circumstances. Given the availability of adequate coping strategies, social support, and openness, challenging life events can serve as catalysts for personal growth and positive psychological changes.