Posttraumatic growth is a term used to describe the processes involved when someone has had a period of adversity and is trying to transform themselves following this. This period of trauma does not have to be anything exceptionally traumatic and most recently, post-traumatic growth has been researched in terms of the Covid pandemic of which some would not see this as a traumatic event. To put it simply, if someone has experienced a period of adversity or a challenge then posttraumatic growth can be investigated.
The rates of posttraumatic growth within the literature are about a 50-50 split, so half of people who experience a traumatic event or a period of adversity will successful be able to learn and grow from it, whereas the other half of people may go on to develop further psychological physical illnesses. Some people would see posttraumatic growth as a change in personality (as behaviours and personal characteristics can change), but for me, I am not sure about this suggestion as I do see personality as an influence and not an outcome here.
Posttraumatic growth can be as synonymous with resilience. When a person becomes more resilient, this suggests that they have identified and used successful coping strategies and that they have been able to make it through the difficult time. While resilience can be seen as simply ‘bouncing back’ after a traumatic event or a period of adversity, post-traumatic growth is much more complex. When someone achieves that status of growth, they may have a new appreciation for things in life; have new possibilities in life; or have a new sense of personal growth or spiritual change. Post-traumatic growth is much more difficult to measure than resilience as it’s often difficult to define what has exactly changed pre and posttraumatic event.
In general, posttraumatic growth can be influenced by a number of factors. These factors can include personality; people who have a more extraverted personality trait, so those people who prefer more social and unexpected environments, are usually seen to be able to develop a more personal level. In particular recent meta-analyses have shown that posttraumatic growth can be influenced by age and gender. People who are of a younger age have been shown to develop the skills and abilities related to posttraumatic growth in comparison to people within older age groups.
Of course, we do need to consider that a period of adversity for one person may not be the same for another person due to the fact that everyone does perceive situations different. We also usually find that more women report post-traumatic growth than men. Tanya Vishnevsky reports that within self-report measures for posttraumatic growth, women report more growth than men, however it was suggested that there are mediating factors such as the measures used within different investigations and also the nature of the stressful events that can impact how growth is then perceived.
People who can present posttraumatic growth in different situations will likely be less anxious and they may be less susceptible to developing mental health issues. However, this relationship can often be questioned as mental health issues could also be the cause of whether someone can go through the process of traumatic growth, as well as being an outcome. If someone is anxious, this could stop someone from using effective coping mechanisms in a difficult situation but it could also be an outcome of that event and this is something that’s often not very clear. There is a very good TED talk on this of which plane crash survivors talk through their own experiences.
One of the issues in relation to posttraumatic growth is that the research is limited. At present, we cannot be sure whether post-traumatic growth is viewed the same across cultures or whether the links between post-traumatic growth, resilience and mental health are the same outside of the UK. Further research needs to be conducted on this to explore the possibility of cultural differences within this area of psychology. We also need to consider how we measure post-traumatic growth as one questionnaire may be more appropriate than another.
Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University.
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