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 - what is post-traumatic growth?

Veteran mental health - What is Post Traumatic Growth? - Written by Carolyn Brown.

The process of re-building after a traumatic event can be slow and distressing. A term used to describe ‘bouncing back’ is resilience and the concept of ‘post traumatic growth’ (PTG) indicates that it is possible for some individuals to bounce back to a higher level than before the traumatic event or events.

People who have experienced trauma can not only ‘survive’ the trauma but can also experience positive changes.  Being in the military can throw up challenges and it can be difficult, but it does lead to ‘growth’.  Moving into civvy street is also full of challenges, some say even more so because you’re not facing them as a team.

There has been quite a bit of research and studies over the past decade exploring this concept of PTG, providing evidence that PTG concepts may be relevant to those who have experienced trauma and offer various explanations.  It could be related to personality types – those who are more open to new experiences may encounter more growth.  Or it may be about looking at the world in a different way and having an alternative understanding of everything, which may foster the notion of PTG. 

In describing the notion of PTG – it doesn’t mean that there is an absence of distress.  It is about believing that positive life changes can also be experienced by trauma survivors.

The five-element framework of PTG developed by Tedeschi and Calhoun in 1996 says:

1.       Through trauma we discover that we are stronger and more resilient than we thought

2.      Because of what we have overcome we have a deeper appreciation of and gratitude for life

3.      Confrontation with aspects of our true nature creates a humility that allows us to have better relationships with others.  We become less egotistic and more compassionate and empathetic towards others

4.      Because we have lost something that we took for granted, new possibilities emerge with new priorities and goals.  Often, we find a purpose beyond ourselves.

5.      A discovery or confirmation of a spiritual connection and change which provides us with a more profound understanding of life including the discovery that meaning in life is key.

6.      The 6th domain is currently being researched by Dr Amrita Sen Mukherjee, a GP and wellbeing coach who recently delivered a presentation at the International Trauma-Informed Care Network

Listening to the lived experience of veterans and their journey towards PTG is inspiring and validates the theory that having a purpose and using existing skills to benefit others can be rewarding and gives a sense of direction and meaning.  The process of PTG can help to rebuild self-identity.  PTG could be facilitated by activities such as sport particularly when supporting others – it’s a universal language.  Tanridagli 2005, says volunteering is the motivation to help others and to make a difference and this has been shown to positively and significantly increase PTG.  Alongside recovery, PTG is personal and means different things to different people. 

This is all very positive, but we must remember that there are concerns about PTG.  The experience of trauma and suffering can bring meaning through PTG but not for all.  Overall, it is hugely positive, but we must look out for those who don’t go on to climb mountains, win races or write books.  Self-development could be at a very grassroots level.   It’s important to offer support without expectations on our part as a military charity.  PTG and suffering are not mutually exclusive; they can co-exist and we see this so frequently.