There is a long tradition in psychiatry, reaching at least back to World War I, of studying the response of people who are faced with traumatic circumstances and devising ways to restore them to psychological health. The main focus of this work has been on the ways in which traumatic events are precursors to psychological and physical problems. This negative focus is understandable and appropriate to the requirements of these contexts. However, only a minority of people exposed to traumatic events develop long-standing psychiatric disorders.
Although not prevalent in either clinical or research settings, there has been a very long tradition of viewing human suffering as offering the possibility for the origin of significant good. A central theme of much philosophical inquiry--and the work of novelists, dramatists and poets--has included attempts to understand and discover the meaning of human suffering (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 1995). In the 20th century, several clinicians and scientists have addressed the ways in which critical life crises offered possibilities for positive personal change (e.g., Caplan, 1964; Frankl, 1963; Maslow, 1970; Yalom and Lieberman, 1991). However, the widespread assumption that trauma will often result in disorder should not be replaced with expectations that growth is an inevitable result. Instead, continuing personal distress and growth often coexist (Cadell et al., 2003).
In the developing literature on posttraumatic growth, we have found that reports of growth experiences in the aftermath of traumatic events far outnumber reports of psychiatric disorders (Quarantelli, 1985; Tedeschi, 1999). This is despite the fact that we are concerned with truly traumatic circumstances rather than everyday stressors. Reports of posttraumatic growth have been found in people who have experienced bereavement, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV infection, cancer, bone marrow transplantation, heart attacks, coping with the medical problems of children, transportation accidents, house fires, sexual assault and sexual abuse, combat, refugee experiences, and being taken hostage (Tedeschi and Calhoun, in press).The Domains of Posttraumatic Growth
The kinds of positive changes individuals experience in their struggles with trauma are reflected in models of posttraumatic growth that we have been building (Calhoun and Tedeschi, 1998) and in a measure of posttraumatic growth that we developed based on interviews with many trauma survivors (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 1996). These changes include improved relationships, new possibilities for one's life, a greater appreciation for life, a greater sense of personal strength and spiritual development. There appears to be a basic paradox apprehended by trauma survivors who report these aspects of posttraumatic growth: Their losses have produced valuable gains.
We also find that other paradoxes are involved. For example: "I am more vulnerable, yet stronger." Individuals who experience traumatic life events tend to report--not surprisingly--an increased sense of vulnerability, congruent with the experience of suffering in ways they may not have been able to control or prevent. However, these same people also may report an increased sense of their own capacities to survive and prevail (Calhoun and Tedeschi, 1999). Another experience often reported by trauma survivors is a need to talk about the traumatic events, which sets into motion tests of interpersonal relationships--some pass, others fail. They also may find themselves becoming more comfortable with intimacy and having a greater sense of compassion for others who experience life difficulties.
Individuals who face trauma may be more likely to become cognitively engaged with fundamental existential questions about death and the purpose of life. A commonly reported change is for the individual to value the smaller things in life more and also to consider important changes in the religious, spiritual and existential components of philosophies of life. The specific content varies, of course, contingent on the individual's initial belief system and the cultural contexts within which the struggle with a life crisis occurs. A common theme, however, is that after a spiritual or existential quest, philosophies of life can become more fully developed, satisfying and meaningful. It appears that for many trauma survivors, a period of questioning their beliefs is ushered in because existential or spiritual issues have become more salient and less abstract. Although firm answers to the questions raised by trauma--why do traumatic events happen, what is the point to my life now that this trauma has occurred, why should I continue to struggle--are not necessarily found, grappling with these issues often produces a satisfaction in trauma survivors so that they are experiencing life at a deeper level of awareness. It should be clear by now that the reflections on one's traumas and their aftermath are often unpleasant, although necessary in reconstructing the life narrative and establishing a wiser perspective on living that accommodates these difficult circumstances. Therefore, posttraumatic growth does not necessarily yield less emotional distress.