Laura L.C. Johnson, MA, MBA, LMFT, LPCC is a Cognitive Behavior Therapist and the founder and executive director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center of Silicon Valley and Sacramento Valley. She integrates positive psychology with cognitive behavior therapy and schema therapy, which have been shown to be effective for a wide variety of problems in hundreds of studies. Her clients learn skills to build positive emotions, optimism, and resilience while decreasing unhelpful thinking, behaviors, and emotions. Full bio. Laura's articles are here.
“Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by doing so change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.” (Frankl, 1959)
In this month’s discussion of stress and resilience , I’d like to highlight posttraumatic growth: “a change in people that goes beyond an ability to resist and not be damaged by highly stressful circumstances; it involves movement beyond pre-trauma levels of adaptation” (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). In contrast to resilience, posttraumatic growth involves the transformative power of suffering.
Making Meaning Out of Adversity
In Man’s Search For Meaning , Victor Frankl tells the story of his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl says that his desire to found a new type of psychotherapy, which he called logotherapy , is what gave him the will to keep going. Frankl writes, “We can discover meaning in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed, (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
Growth occurs not through the suffering itself, but through the individual’s struggle and reconstruction of shattered assumptions. In the aftermath of trauma, cognitive rebuilding alters one’s schemas, or core beliefs, and creates a new reality. Many people then make dramatic life changes and shift priorities based on this new way of seeing the world. In doing so, they can also change the world:
- A mother who loses her daughter to a drunk driving accident founds Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD );
- A brain scientist has a stroke and gains first-hand insight to inspire others (link here to her story);
- A daughter is kidnapped and her father starts a foundation to help other missing children;
- A professor videotapes his last lecture to leave a legacy for his children, who are too young to have memories of him.
Many lower-profile, quiet transformations happen everyday — a rape survivor volunteers for her local rape crisis center hotline; a group of breast cancer survivors walk in unison to help find a cure, scarves over their bald heads.
Benefits of Posttraumatic Growth
“Trauma survivors no longer move through life unmindful of existence; they can more readily relish the good, for they all too well know the bad.” (Janoff-Bulman, 1992)
- Closer and more intimate relationships;
- A general sense of personal strength;
- New possibilities for taking one’s life in a new direction;
- Spiritual growth and engagement with existential questions.
Trauma survivors are not often seeking these benefits or searching for meaning in the aftermath of adversity. Many are just trying to survive or wrestling to decide whether life is still worth living. Posttraumatic growth is “a consequence of attempts to re-establish some useful, basic cognitive guides for living, rather than a search for meaning or an attempt to manage the terror of mortality” (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Such growth is extraordinary in the individual, and also when their awareness gives strength and support to others.
Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s Search For Meaning. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Janoff-Bulmann, R. (1992). Shattered Assumptions. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 1-18.
Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (1998). POSTTRAUMATIC GROWTH: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis (Lea Series in Personality and Clinical Psychology).
Stairway (#19621) courtesy of mark sebastian
Jellyfish mandala courtesy of omnos
Sprouting Flowers by Kevin Gillespie for the chapter in Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves.
Silhoutte pair (take the long road, and walk it ) courtesy of notsogoodphotography