Post-Traumatic Growth: grasping the gift

The psychological, emotional and spiritual aftermath of trauma, direct or vicarious, can be very different for different individuals, even in very similar circumstances. There are possibilities beyond PTSD, and even beyond simple restoration of what once was. Winning all the way through, finding and grasping the gift, requires courage and struggle. The loss of your old and comfortable sense of shelter can be a call to go on spiritual quest.

For some people, the traumatic event becomes a transformative, even an Initiatory, experience – a classic death, descent, and rebirth scenario. Even before 9/11, a few psychologists had begun to notice this, and to study something they called Post Traumatic Growth.

We still don’t know why some people experience PTSD, while others win through to Post Traumatic Growth. It may have something to do with personal resiliency and with the resources available to the person before the challenge hit. It probably has a lot to do with their attitude. We do know something about the process that such people undergo.

Life is demanding, and very often the demands are repetitious. We tend to create habits of perception and behavior, basic assumptions about the way the world works. Most of the time, these serve us as a reasonable set of guidelines for our lives. But all these habits are also restrictions, limiting our ability to adapt to drastically changing circumstances – and limiting our spontaneity and creativity even in the good times.

Trauma shatters those assumptions, partially or wholly depending on the severity of the trauma. In the immediate aftermath of trauma, people are without the benefit of their own experience. The understandings by which they had lived are shaken apart, blown away. They are psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually naked. They are confused and terrified, suddenly thrown back to the primal issues of survival and security, of basic trust.

Like Inanna, they are completely stripped down to the bare bones.

As Pagans, we understand that destruction is a necessary part of the Cycle. It creates the potential for new growth. But it is chaotic and painful -- and growth is not a given. It does not automatically emerge from the trauma, but from the challenging struggle to cope with trauma and work through it – to rebuild what was broken, very much better than before.

After trauma, people need time to grieve. That’s always the first step in healing: grief before growth. Initially, the grief may be overwhelming, but it subsides. It will never completely disappear, but. in time grief will cease to fill the person’s consciousness. When acceptance restores equanimity, some of that energy and attention can turn from grief to growth.

The painful memories won’t dominate, but they will remain. Far better to face and name these demons head-on from the very beginning of recovery than to bury them deep within. Well-meaning platitudes about faith and the inscrutable will of the Gods usually backfire. They silence the person, pressuring them to bottle up their emotions, depriving them of possible sources of support.

Burying the painful memories risks cutting off the process completely. Memories of trauma cannot and should not be repressed. Grief repressed comes out in distorted, and sometimes explosive ways -- and at the worst possible times. In fact, much therapy consists of retrieving and re-experiencing pain that had been hidden away.

After the inner devastation of trauma, people take nothing for granted. They are forced back to the deeper existential and spiritual questions that underlie daily decisions. Beliefs become less abstract after traumatic events, more experiential and affective now instead of merely intellectual. Simplistic, rote answers will no longer work. After traumatic experience, people need to reconstruct their beliefs, to revise their core assumptions, and perhaps to formulate entirely new life-goals for themselves. They will necessarily do so from a more mature – and hopefully wiser -- perspective.

Trauma-induced spiritual quest, when unflinchingly pursued, leads to more fully developed, more satisfying, more meaningful philosophies of life, to richer and better-cultivated spirituality. On that solid basis, people also change their way of behaving in the world.

These are some of the hard-won blessings of Post-Traumatic Growth:

  • Greater psychological, emotional, and spiritual clarity, depth,  and maturity
  • New and greater strength and resiliency, more personal confidence
  • Deepening of compassion
  • A recognition of vulnerability and struggle, in self and others
  • Improved relationships, greater capacity for emotional intimacy
  • New values and truer life priorities
  • Heightened pleasure in small things. Appreciation and gratitude
  • Sense of new possibilities, and perhaps a new vocation, for one’s life

Trauma, for those who can work all the way through the process, can be like the forces of nature that rip the shell off the seed and so permit new growth. It is our choice. It is always our choice.

There is a classic series of Buddhist illustrations of the process of spiritual development, called the “Ox-Herding Pictures.” You might expect the series to end with enlightenment, but it does not. That’s the next to the last picture. The final one is called “returning to the village with helping hands.” Pagans express this insight in the figure of the wounded healer, the elder who has faced and surmounted challenges, and who realizes their learnings by mentoring others. And so the Wheel turns.


To learn more:
  • Calhoun, Lawrence, Crystal L. Park, and Richard G. Tedeschi RG, eds. Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis  Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 1998
  • Calhoun, Lawrence G. and Richard Tedeschi Facilitating Posttraumatic Growth: a Clinician’s Guide Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 1999
  • Calhoun, Lawrence G. and Richard Tedeschi, eds. Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth: Research and Practice  NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2006


Web Sites: