What is post-traumatic growth syndrome? Why is trauma crucial for finding one’s strength?
While a life free of adversity sounds endearing, humans actually need struggle and loss in their lives in order to grow. This phenomenon is called post-traumatic growth syndrome. Survivors of trauma have a stronger network and tend to be more resilient.
Keep reading for more on post-traumatic growth syndrome.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
In thinking about how to maximize our happiness, we have to consider what makes us unhappy. If we could design the happiest possible lives for ourselves, surely we would opt for one without any setbacks or adversity, in which we get everything we want without having to overcome any struggles.
But this would actually be counterproductive. While behaviorists certainly overstate the case when they argued that providing unconditional love to children would render them weak and undeveloped, there is some truth to the idea that human beings need some amount of struggle in their lives in order to reach their full potential and experience traumatic growth. Under certain circumstances, adversity can be beneficial for human happiness and fulfillment.
Health psychologists now talk about post-traumatic growth in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder. People who suffer setbacks, even tragedies like the loss of a loved one, often find new strengths as a result of their experience.
One way that adversity helps build character is through resilience. People who’ve suffered through hardships can emerge with a new appreciation for their strengths. They often find that they can survive events they once thought they couldn’t. It goes back to the adaptation principle we explored in Chapter 4—even after a terrible loss, we tend to settle into a new normal. By discovering new reserves of resilience, you gain the confidence to face new challenges with less fear and anticipation.
Trauma survivors also discover that they have a much stronger network of people who love and care for them than they had previously thought. This discovery activates the reciprocity reflex—we feel a deeper love for and connection to people in our social network and want to foster even closer ties with them. And because we come to value these relationships more, we devote more of our energies to cultivating them, instead of seeking money or possessions. If we look back to what we learned in Chapter 4, loss can help us shift our focus away from conspicuous consumption towards inconspicuous consumption. We come to crave closer connections to things like family and religion that have deeper, more intrinsic value for us.
The idea of inner change coming from tragedy and even near-death experiences is, of course, well-explored in the world of literature. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the miserly and misanthropic Scrooge transforms into a benevolent, kind-hearted humanitarian once he is shown a vision of his own death by the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come—and how little he will be missed by those who knew him unless he changes his ways. Dickens was demonstrating knowledge of a great psychological truth.
People who are genetically predisposed to optimism are more likely to thrive in the aftermath of a crisis. Their optimistic natures instill a belief that their efforts will be successful, so they more diligently set to work trying to solve the crises that come their way. Even if they fail, they still manage to find silver linings.
People with a negative genetic predisposition (those with more brain wave activity on their right frontal cortex than on their left) will have different reactions to adversity. Believing that their efforts are doomed to failure no matter what, they pursue an avoidance strategy, often seeking to blunt the emotional effects of crisis through drugs, alcohol, or other distractions. This can lead to a self-reinforcing pattern of negative thought.
One key to rising above crises and breaking the pattern of negative thinking around them is opening up and talking about them. One study by social psychologist Jamie Pennebaker found that patients in an experimental group who spent just 15 minutes writing about their most upsetting life experiences had better health outcomes over the next six months (fewer incidents of illness and hospital visits) than those in a control group that didn’t write about similar setbacks.
Pennebaker suggested that, by coming face-to-face with their worst moments, the people in the first group succeeded in incorporating these events into their self-narratives. This enabled them to come to terms with these experiences, and ultimately derive meaning from them. He found this to be true regardless of the nature of the specific tragedy that had befallen the test subjects; what mattered more was the ability to incorporate it into a larger narrative.
Thus, adversity can be beneficial to anyone. It’s not what happens to you; it’s how your mental processes interpret and filter those events. Accordingly, you can alter your cognitive style by:
- Meditation, cognitive therapy, or SSRIs
- Deriving more value from the relationships in your life
- Expressing your thoughts and feelings by recording them