From Adversity to Posttraumatic Growth

In her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” the late African American author and poet Maya Angelou wrote of enduring great adversity as a child.

Angelou recounted in this critically acclaimed work being raped by her mother’s boyfriend at age eight, becoming mute for five years, and encountering racism in her childhood.

Angelou went on to have an extraordinary career in the arts, became a celebrated role model, a stalwart of the Civil Rights movement and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. 

A high percentage of us will encounter a significant traumatic event sometime during our lives. Such adversity may cause us profound suffering, interfere with our functioning in the world, and in the worst of cases cause full-blown Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

As a trauma therapist working within a mind/body somatic orientation, I have worked with many clients who have faced a wide range of traumatic events, including childhood abuse, divorce and separation, high impact accidents, assault, intense medical procedures and life threatening illness.

Yet also I have witnessed many clients, who like Angelou, not only come to terms with such adversity but also deeply grow, mature and thrive in life.

How is that some people are able to harness a traumatic event as impetus for compelling and meaningful growth?

Twenty years ago two psychologists, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, set out to investigate this very question.

Their pioneering research involving over 600 trauma survivors led them to coin the term “posttraumatic growth.”

According to the Tedeschi and Calhoun this phenomenon “is a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crises or a traumatic event. Although we coined the term posttraumatic growth, the idea that human beings can be changed by their encounters with life challenges, sometimes in radically positive ways, is not new.”

The psychologists found in their research that their subjects reported positive changes in five areas of their lives:

1) new possibilities emerging after the traumatic event 

2) closer and deeper relationships 

3) more inner strength 

4) more appreciation of life 

5) a deepening of their spirituality 

So how is that some people who endure trauma not only heal but move toward creative growth and others not? Perhaps one part of the answer is the person’s capacity for resiliency, a topic in a future post.

Two books worth reading on this emerging field of psychological research are “What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth,” by Stephen Joseph, Ph.D, and “Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth” by journalist Jim Rendon.

I don’t ever wish that you encounter trauma and suffering, but know that if you have encountered significant adversity in your life, you can not only heal but also flourish and impact others in immensely beneficial way. 

To quote Angelou, “My mission in life is not really to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”