It’s Never Too Late to Turn Trauma Into Growth

The psychology of post-traumatic growth can help us understand why some people become stronger, braver, and more creative after the worst moment of their lives

Photo: Justin Paget/Getty Images

It’s been 29 days since I lost my partner in a swimming accident. And for the 29th day, I’m awake at an ungodly hour writing. Writing about his life, and mine. Writing about everything I learned and how deeply we loved in our too-short time together.

The last time I experienced a surge of creativity like this was three years ago, when my divorce was finalized. This wasn’t one of your run-of-the-mill separations where we tried to work it out but couldn’t. This divorce came on fast and hard and necessarily. But while I fully expected to fall apart, I didn’t. Instead, in between waves of shock and grief, I learned to play a new instrument to remind me how brave I was. I started sharing my songs and writing publicly and started a new graduate school program. I wanted to remind myself I was still alive.

We all know about post-traumatic stress disorder, when the impact of a traumatic event causes psychological distress and manifests as anxiety, intrusive thoughts, ongoing fear, and reactive symptoms. But in the 1990s, researchers began to take note of another response to trauma: Some people actually seem to get stronger, braver, more spiritual, more connected, and more appreciative of life in direct correlation to the worst moment of their lives.

We are living in a time of widespread trauma. In the midst of it, you may be experiencing some form of post-traumatic growth (PTG). This doesn’t mean you are suffering any less than others — it simply means your pain has found a place to go. Here’s how to identify PTG and how to make room for it.

What post-traumatic growth can look like

According to the Posttraumatic Growth Research Group at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, PTG tends to occur in five distinct forms:

  • Gaining a deeper appreciation for the beauty and wonder of life and showing more gratitude for the little moments often overlooked.
  • Deepening relationships with the people we love and/or choosing to comfort survivors who have experienced the same form of trauma.
  • Seeking out and embracing new opportunities and recognizing the brevity of our own mortality.
  • Becoming stronger internally through self-validation: “If I survived this, I can survive anything.”
  • Experiencing a shift or growth in faith or a brand-new connection with religion and/or spirituality.

The research on PTG is new and ongoing, and there’s a lot about it that’s still unknown. But what we do know is that it redirects the pain of the trauma, allowing us to look inward and toward the future rather than remaining stuck in the past.

How to cultivate post-traumatic growth

Post-traumatic growth isn’t the same as resilience, though the two are related. Resilience is influenced by one’s environment and involves a return to a previous level of healthy functioning after trauma. Think of it like a ball that bounces back once it’s dropped on the ground. Most people eventually do this following a major traumatic event.

Post-traumatic growth, however, is a transformational change in one’s capacity to create, connect, take risks, reflect, and hold perspective. It’s a ball that bounces back but then keeps on going, defying the laws of gravity.

There’s no proven recipe or hack for post-traumatic growth, but there are things you can do to make space for it — not to give yourself one more thing to do as you heal but to help ease your own healing process.

Indulge in creativity

Creating something new can be a meaningful way of honoring something that has been lost, whether that is a person you loved, a relationship you wanted, or a way of seeing the world. One of my deceased partner’s friends is working to finish producing the music they had been working on together. Others who knew him are creating scrapbooks, sharing pictures, and writing stories. Making space to memorialize a particular point in time is a way of capturing what you’ve learned and how you want to live differently in the future.

Creativity doesn’t need to be limited to art, music, or writing. Pour yourself into the thing you do best — whether that’s running a quicker mile than ever, propagating new succulents for your window, or cooking your meanest ever batch of chili. Do what you do with purpose, and take pleasure in the results. As a friend once wisely told me: If you can’t make it happy, make it beautiful.

Seek justice

Another way to cultivate growth following trauma is to seek to make things right — if not for yourself, then for others. A survivor of child sexual abuse might choose to confront or take legal action against their abuser. Parents who lost a child to cancer might decide to create a charity to help others in the same situation. A survivor of a natural disaster may decide to devote their life to helping other people rebuild.

Seeking justice can also be an internal act, especially when no one is to blame. It may mean going into the dark places of the heart, asking the hard questions, and allowing yourself to feel the pain of realizing there are no good answers.

Reach out

Unless you make an effort, you won’t know who else is suffering the way you are and would be comforted by your presence. Unless you share vulnerably, you won’t discover how much another’s presence will comfort you, too.

In the aftermath of trauma, tell stories. Ask for stories. Accept any and all offers of help. Go to the funeral or the remembrance day or the support group with other survivors. Take the risk of reconnecting with someone from your past. Take the risk of approaching someone you might not otherwise. Most people appreciate the opportunity to provide support in someone else’s darkest hour.

Know that experiencing the effects of post-traumatic growth doesn’t mean you won’t also experience the distressing effects of trauma. Alongside my current creative streak are painful physical manifestations of grief, intense mood swings, and lots and lots of crying. And I still have reactive symptoms to certain stimuli left over from my divorce.

Post-traumatic growth can and does happen, but don’t feel guilty if it doesn’t or if it doesn’t happen on your timetable. Even though I’m doing a lot of writing and creating, taking risks, and reaching out, I’m not ready to say this is a period of growth. It has only been 29 days. I’m not back to healthy functioning; the grief I feel far outweighs any of the growth I’m experiencing.

I take heart in the words my partner once shared with me when I told him the long version of the story of how my marriage ended. He listened intently and thought carefully about his response. “As much as I want to say sorry for what you’ve gone through,” he said, “it doesn’t seem like the right thing to say. Because I don’t see you as a victim.” Instead, he said, he saw me as a survivor.

There are so many of us now who are living through our own traumas or just beginning to find our way out. The pain doesn’t go away, but it can pave the way for something beautiful and new.

Storyteller. Solo parent. Social worker. Published in Forge, Human Parts, and more. Lover of frisbees, ukuleles, and lists of threes. I’m on FB @courtneycwrites

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