What Is Post-Traumatic Growth?

Here's how to heal and grow from life's toughest moments.

There's no sugarcoating it: Sometimes, life hurts. Losses, heartbreaks, and setbacks of all kinds can strongly affect anyone. 

In response, psychologists are increasingly studying the possibilities of what's known as post-traumatic growth. Some experts believe post-traumatic growth happens after surviving hard periods in life. That growth can often make people more focused, compassionate, spiritual, and aware of their own strengths and possibilities than before.


Post-Traumatic Growth

"Feeling bad after your life is upended is totally normal," Sarah Lowe, PhD, an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, told Health. "But humans are also programmed to be resilient—to grow and learn from even difficult things."

A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that you may have better psychological health if you can accept your negative mental experiences rather than judge them.

"These events can shake us and strip away our assumptions. They push you to reexamine what is most important," Ann Marie Roepke, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Evoke Training and Consulting, told Health. "You learn things about yourself you never would if life was clear sailing." 

However, that's not to diminish the suffering such events cause, noted Roepke. Your pain and growth can coexist. Still, keep in mind that there may be stops and starts in your growth. 

"Post-traumatic growth is a journey, and everyone is on their own timeline,"  Laura Silberstein-Tirch, PsyD, a psychotherapist based in New York and author of "The Everyday Guide to Self-Compassion: How to Be Nice to Yourself," told Health. "It can start with small moments of just noticing what you are feeling and accepting it rather than fighting it." 

Often, psychotherapy can be an important tool in helping you work through your feelings and find meaning, added Silberstein-Tirch.

Hidden Power of Resilience

Building resilience during hardship can help you work through your feelings and develop that growth. 

So, if you need some inspiration, here are some hard-earned lessons from people there. They show how our lowest moments can pave the way to richer lives. 

"Just knowing growth is possible after trauma can itself be healing," said Roepke. "As long as we don't pressure or shame ourselves for our struggle."

Allow Your Hard Times to Teach You Compassion

"Once I was wrestling with a painful relationship problem that was really troubling me," Susan Piver, a longtime meditation teacher and author of books including "The Four Noble Truths of Love," told Health. "I went around and around with it. I just couldn't think my way out." 

Frustrated, Piver sought the counsel of one of her teachers, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist sage.

"I expected this brilliant scholar to give me a doorway to open, advice that would make the problem go away," added Piver. "Instead, Rinpoche told me, 'Think of how much compassion you will have in the future for others who are struggling with this too.'"

According to Piver, Rinpoche's remark changed her feelings of isolation into ones of deep connection with others.

"It was an extraordinary moment," noted Piver. "I went from thinking, 'What's wrong with me? How come I can't fix this?' to realizing everyone suffers. Countless people are struggling right now." 

That sort of realization can be empowering. What's more, your own difficult times can be a powerful engine of empathy.

"My heart will open to them," said Piver. "There is something about being with people who have experienced exactly what you have that trumps every other form of help."

Savor the Little Things

2008 was a difficult year, Neil Pasricha, author of "Our Book of Awesome: A Celebration of the Small Joys That Bring Us Together Book by Neil Pasricha Book," told Health. During that year, Pasricha's wife had asked him for a divorce, and his best friend died by suicide after a struggle with mental illness. 

In the wake of those hardships, Pasricha cast about a way to move forward from that bleak time. In his journey, Parischa found that losses can make you appreciate what remains.

"I started putting myself in a better mood by intentionally contemplating all the small pleasures that we're still out there," recalled Parischa. 

Parischa posted such little delights on his blog: Underwear warm out of the dryer, free soda refills at your favorite restaurant, and being right there when a new line opens at the supermarket. All that savoring struck a chord with followers. Eventually, he compiled his musings into his book.

"We will all get lumps and bumps in life," added Pasricha. "But there are so many amazing things, and we only have a finite time on earth to enjoy them. A positive mindset helps soften every blow you get from a nasty email, a friend letting you down, or a bad news story flying across the headlines."

Give Yourself Credit for Your Strengths

"When you are first faced with a tragedy, you often doubt your ability to cope," Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author of "13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don't Do," told Health. "But often, you don't have a choice in the matter. You realize you are stronger than you think." 

In Morin's case, she was 26 when she became a widow. Three years prior, Morin's mother had died.

"There were days I thought I was in a horrible dream," said Morin. However, Morin understood such feelings were natural. 

"I knew I had to balance allowing myself to feel bad with pushing myself toward finding a new normal," added Morin. 

Morin bought a motorcycle, enjoying the solace of the open road. She also made a point to give herself credit every night for the day-to-day strengths that were helping her make it through. Among that credit is forgiveness.

"When you are grieving, well-intentioned people can say hurtful things. 'Don't worry, you will get married again!' I wanted to slap them," said Morin. "But I surprised myself. I was able to take a step back and think, 'OK, your heart is in the right place.'"

Also, allowing yourself to be brave is important. For Morin, by giving the eulogy for her husband in front of hundreds of people, she pushed aside a lifetime of that self-consciousness. 

"I was always the shy kid hiding in the back of the class," added Morin. "I didn't care if I stumbled over my words. I needed those people to hear his stories. If someone had told me I was capable of that, I wouldn't have believed them."

When it comes to helping others in her own practice, Morin has some advice: "When you start to doubt yourself, write out a list of five reasons why you are strong enough to handle this. It's a reminder: I got this."

Learn to Look for the "Hidden Advantage"

During the dark days after a tragedy, feeling grief, anger, and sadness are normal, Lindsey Roy, an inspirational speaker, told Health.

In the summer of 2013, a freak boating accident almost claimed Roy's life. The accident resulted in an amputated left leg, a severely injured right leg, and a damaged right arm. Grueling months of surgeries and rehab followed. Roy recalled sliding out of her wheelchair and dragging her injured body up the stairs when her children needed her.

"I was trying any coping mechanism I could to keep myself out of the hole," said Roy. According to Roy, she started intentionally asking herself a question: "Yes, this is horrible, but is there any good that has come of it?"

"Many days, I could not come up with anything," said Roy. 

Then, Roy's then 4-year-old son offered to bring her one of his stuffed animals to help her feel better. 

"I ended up with a huge pile of them around me," recalled Roy, adding that her son was especially solicitous of a stuffed caterpillar with a missing leg. 

Roy saw one silver lining at that moment: "Maybe going through this will help my kids grow up really open to diversity, really empathetic and caring."

That mindset shifted Roy's whole perspective. She had since made looking for the "hidden advantage" a daily practice. From finding it's easy to paint your toenails when you can take your leg off to helping others by sharing her experience as an inspirational speaker, Roy began to see the positive in her daily life.

"Being on the lookout for the positive in a situation is a habit anyone can adopt. It takes practice," said Roy. "But when I do it, I can feel my whole energy changing."

A Quick Review

Experiencing or surviving hard events or experiences can often make us more focused, compassionate, spiritual, and aware of our own strengths and possibilities than before. Also known as post-traumatic growth, some evidence suggests that if you accept those negative experiences, you may improve your mental health.

If you learn compassion, embrace small joys or victories, give yourself credit for your strengths, and find a silver lining from your negative experiences, you may be able to strengthen your resilience.

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  1. Ford BQ, Lam P, John OP, et al. The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidenceJ Pers Soc Psychol. 2018;115(6):1075-1092. doi:10.1037/pspp0000157

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