For some victims, the trauma leads to unprecedented psychological strength.  

Amanda MacMillan
September 25, 2017

Over the last month or so, it’s seemed like there’s been one natural disaster after another: historic flooding in Houston and Florida, Earthquakes in Mexico, and hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, to name just a few that have hit close to home.

There’s no question that these events are incredibly traumatic for the people they’ve affected, and it could take years for them to recover physically, financially, and mentally, if they ever do. But a growing body of research suggests that for some people, this type of trauma can lead to unprecedented psychological strength and optimism—a phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth.

That’s not saying that these events are good things, or that people are better off because they went through them, says Jean Rhodes, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. But it is something mental health experts want to learn more about, so they can help more people see the bright side of such horrible events.

Rhodes recently spoke with Health about her research on Hurricane Katrina survivors, and about the field of post-traumatic grief in general. Here’s how she thinks it can inform our response to natural disasters and the support we provide to victims, as well as what survivors can do to increase their likelihood of recovery and resilience.

The idea of post-traumatic growth isn’t new

The concept that “whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” has been around since ancient times, and there’s some version of it in pretty much every culture, says Rhodes. But the actual term “post-traumatic growth” wasn’t coined until the mid-1990s by a research group at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

“Only recently have we begun to have the clinical vocabulary and the tools to really measure it, which has given it a real place in the field of psychology,” says Rhodes. Since then, post-traumatic growth has been studied in a variety of populations, from victims of natural disasters, to cancer survivors, to veterans returning from war. 

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Most trauma survivors recover—some thrive

Rhodes and her colleague Mary Waters, PhD, were in the middle of a research project studying low-income women in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Because they had lots of data about these women before tragedy struck, they decided to shift their focus to see how they fared over the next several years post-trauma.

“We measured things like depression and anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and for about 60% of those people, those levels had returned back to normal years later,” she says. “But for many, they don’t—they remain highly distressed for many years.”

But for about 3% to 5% of survivors, their depression and anxiety scores not only returned to normal, but actually improved compared to what they’d been before Katrina. And a surprising number of women reported growth and success in other areas, like their appreciation for life and their relationships with others.

That doesn’t mean they don’t still suffer

Many of those women who experienced the most growth were the same ones who experienced the most distress. “You can be anxious and suffering from post-traumatic stress and still have post-traumatic growth,” says Rhodes. “They’re on different planes and they’re not mutually exclusive.”

For these women, stress served as an engine for growth, Rhodes continues. “If everything’s fine in your life, you’re not going to reevaluate your priorities. It very often requires a huge jolt in your life for you to begin to rethink things and have this sort of existential awakening.”

Research shows that plenty of survivors feel that their trauma was the worst thing they’ve ever been through—even if it also turned out to be the best. For that reason, it’s smart not to interject statements like “everything happens for a reason,” or “look at the bright side” to people who are clearly suffering. “Post-traumatic growth comes from within, and it usually comes to only certain people after they’ve had time to reflect,” Rhodes says. “Facile reassurances will not promote it.”

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Personality has something to do with it

Some people are naturally more optimistic or pessimistic than others, and personality traits such as happiness (as measured before a trauma occurred) do seem to play a role in who experiences post-traumatic growth and who doesn’t. How spiritual a person is, and how they think about fate, may be predictive as well, says Rhodes—although spirituality can also be an area of growth after trauma.

Keeping an open mind and remaining flexible seems to help too. “Some people continue to struggle because it’s like they’re trying to put a broken vase back together exactly as it was before,” says Rhodes. “Others will realize that it’s different than before, but in some ways it’s better.”

Finding some safety and security is important

It’s not just personality, though: The environment people find themselves in after a trauma, and the social support they receive, also affects their chances of thriving in the following years. “We’re learning that for post-traumatic growth to occur, you have to be able to stick to one place emotionally, where you can step back and begin to process everything,” says Rhodes. When people are continuously hit with new assaults—which often happens in the aftermath of a natural disaster—they can’t start the healing process.

“We need to really look at what are the most difficult stressors after a disaster and try to mitigate those,” says Rhodes. “If we do that, we’ll be in a better position to reduce the level of trauma and give people the safe place they need to begin to face what happened.”

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Volunteering may help, too

“We’ve found that there is an association between post-traumatic growth and more civic engagement—more volunteering and becoming involved in your community,” says Rhodes. (That’s not surprising, considering that volunteering has been shown to boost mood and protect against stress in other situations, as well.)

“Before a trauma happens, we’re all living in our own world looking out for ourselves and our loved ones,” Rhodes says. “But collective trauma forces you to engage with strangers and brings out a lot of good will.” Some forthcoming research even shows that civic engagement before a trauma occurs can be a predictor of who will experience growth after.

Survivors should talk it out—but only when they’re ready

Some research has shown that encouraging disaster victims to talk about their experiences immediately after they happen can have negative effects. “I wouldn’t recommend that kind of emergency response, when mental health workers come in right away and force people to tell their stories,” says Rhodes.

“But what I would recommend is when people feel ready, they should talk to someone,” she adds. “Storytelling is a real pathway to healing; it can build a narrative around what happened in a way that enables you to get out in front of it.” Speaking with a mental health professional or a trusted friend, or writing down your emotions in a journal, may be an important part of recovery.