What is post-traumatic growth?
Lawrence Calhoun and Richard G. Tedeschi, now professors of psychology emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, coined the term “post-traumatic growth” in 1995 to describe the phenomenon of people experiencing positive changes in their personal life or outlook after a tragedy or crisis.
Since then, studies have established that a varying percentage of people – sometimes a majority – report this kind of positive growth after experiencing a variety of hardships, such as losing someone close to them, surviving cancer, divorce, sexual assault, or war.
In 1996, Tedeschi developed The Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory to measure post-traumatic growth. The inventory consists of 21 items across five dimensions of post-traumatic growth:
- Personal Strength (e.g., “I have a greater feeling of self-reliance.”)
- New Possibilities (e.g., “I established a new path for my life.”)
- Improved Relationships (e.g., “I put more effort into my relationships.”)
- Spiritual Growth (e.g., “I have a better understanding of spiritual matters.”)
- Appreciation for Life (e.g., “I can better appreciate each day.”)
These positive changes do not mean that an experience wasn’t felt to be primarily negative. They occur in the context of trauma and alongside post-traumatic stress. But they do constitute a framework for real hope for life improvement that comes because of, not in spite of, difficult experiences.
Post-traumatic growth in the climate crisis
Due to the climate crisis, natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more severe. In the aftermath of a disaster, it’s important to realize that post-traumatic growth can occur. This phenomenon has been studied in adults and youth, yielding important information on how we can thrive after a life-threatening or altering experience.
Unlike personal misfortunes such as bereavement, the climate crisis can create experiences of collective trauma. A growing number of people around the world are affected by climate-related weather events and associated trauma each year. Just one example is, as of May 2022, about 4 in 10 Americans had personally experienced a flood or intense storm, while in the summer of 2023, 100 million Americans were placed under air-quality alerts from wildfire smoke.
The increasing prevalence of these experiences makes it all the more important to be aware of the possibility of fostering post-traumatic growth. This can and should be part of the design and implementation of climate adaptation and disaster recovery efforts.
A 2019 study of post-traumatic growth in low-income Black mothers who survived Hurricane Katrina found a strong relationship between post-traumatic growth and “exposure to opportunities in survivors’ post-disaster communities”. These included:
- Improvements in their neighborhood infrastructure and housing options
- Increased racial diversity in their communities
- New educational and economic opportunities resulting from community-based, state, and national investment in disaster recovery
Post-traumatic growth can be fostered in various settings, allowing for creativity in the delivery of appropriate services. For instance, it can occur in individual or group therapy. Schools, firms, and communities can support growth for their students, employees, or community members. It can also occur with the support of friends or family members, or specially-trained peers. Tedeschi, for example, runs a center for veterans designed to foster post-traumatic growth through peer support and opportunities for family bonding. When peers get an opportunity to help their fellow veterans, the helpers can also experience post-traumatic growth through their acts of service.
Frontline communities are disproportionately impacted by natural disasters, and are also more likely to be marginalized by race, class, immigration status, gender, and age. People from all walks of life and backgrounds can experience post-traumatic growth. But there is a danger, from a public policy perspective, in promoting post-traumatic growth, with its emphasis on dimensions such as spiritual faith and personal strength, as an alternative to disaster recovery resources or trauma-informed therapy, particularly in marginalized communities. This can raise equity concerns.
Eranda Jayawickreme at Wake Forest University has studied post-traumatic growth in Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and with different populations in the United States. He cautions that the perception of post-traumatic growth can be mediated by cultural norms around, for example, discussing trauma. If delivered as an expectation that traumatized people find a silver lining in their experiences, talking about post-traumatic growth could be experienced as harmful, Jayawickreme says. It’s essential to pair programs promoting post-traumatic growth with material resources that aid in recovery, including access to mental health care.
Because of their developmental state and relative powerlessness in society, children are disproportionately affected by climate-related natural disasters. It’s also been well-studied that childhood trauma can cause toxic stress, which can impede the healthy development of the body and brain. Studies show that the earlier and more frequently children are exposed to stress, the more likely they are to suffer long-term from mental health issues, physical illness, and shortened lifespans. The call to protect children from climate trauma should be loud and unrelenting.
That said, children as young as 8 do self-report experiencing post-traumatic growth. Tedeschi believes that this represents more or less the youngest age at which children are cognitively able to process two truths in tension: both “I experienced something bad” and “I drew something positive out of my negative experience”. He also believes that post-traumatic growth can be fostered in children by supportive adults, especially parents and teachers.
Consequences if carbon emissions continue to climb
With more frequent climate-related disasters, increased displacement of people and animals due to parts of the world becoming inhospitable to human life, and conflicts influenced by a warming planet, the climate crisis is ripening the conditions for large-scale and far-reaching trauma.
Post-traumatic growth isn’t guaranteed. Knowing that positive outcomes are possible after disasters doesn’t diminish the suffering and other negative consequences. Yet knowledge about post-traumatic growth can point the path toward resilience in our struggling world.
Post-traumatic growth can and should be fostered in others
Post-traumatic growth can be promoted through multiple means:
- Emotional Regulation
- Narrative Development
- Service to others
Simply knowing about the possibility of post-traumatic growth (education) makes it more likely to occur. Gaining skills in emotional regulation enables people to tolerate reflecting on their traumatic experiences, which is necessary for growth.
It’s also more likely to occur in contexts where telling stories about one’s trauma and recovery process (disclosure and narrative development) are encouraged and supported.
A final step in the consolidation of post-traumatic growth can come when individuals have the opportunity to be of service to others, particularly those who have suffered in similar circumstances.
These opportunities give indications about optimal responses to climate-related disaster recovery. There is a need for more psychological first aid and mental healthcare in the immediate aftermath of climate disasters, as well as in the follow-up, and opportunities for communities to be involved in their re-building, which should include documenting and telling stories about what took place.
What else might we need to know about post-traumatic growth?
One less established question in the research literature is whether post-traumatic growth is primarily a product of mental reframing or self-perception, or whether it will indeed result in better outcomes in the future. Jayawickreme suggests a direction of research that establishes a more empirical basis for post-traumatic growth. In one such study, he found that friends and relatives of people who had suffered a trauma corroborated their self-reported changes, both positive and negative.
In relation to climate change, increased awareness of post-traumatic growth might improve how we communicate publicly about disaster recovery, and how we help communities recover. Rather than only promoting resilience, talking about post-traumatic growth in a nuanced way integrates and respects the fact that a community and individuals have experienced negative effects from an event, even as they also find positive dimensions of their experiences. In particular, it can be valuable to understand that opportunities for storytelling, and acts of service to others, are part of an individual and collective meaning-making experience after going through something difficult.
Not only individuals, but organizations and even global systems can show post-traumatic growth by making systemic changes that improve the quality of their operations and services after a crisis. Alan C. Logan and colleagues, in a 2021 paper in the journal Challenges, write that “post-traumatic growth research might inform the larger planetary health community, especially in the context of a global pandemic, broadening socioeconomic inequalities, a worsening climate crisis, and the rise of political authoritarianism”.
The authors suggest applying the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic to “focus on the value of new awareness, perspective and greater wisdom”.
How We Grow Through What We Go Through: Self-Compassion Practices for Post-Traumatic Growth by Christopher Willard, published in 2022 by Sounds True.
Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth by Jim Rendon, published in 2015 by Simon and Schuster.
Articles and Online Sources
Canadian wildfire smoke spreads, 100 million Americans under air-quality alerts, published in Reuters on June 9, 2023, by Brendan O’Brien.
Growth After Trauma, published in Harvard Business Review in July-August 2020, by Richard G. Tedeschi.
How We can Help Children Grow In The Wake Of A Crisis, published in The New York Times on August 22, 2022, by Anya Kamenetz.
Most Americans who have faced extreme weather see a link to climate change – Republicans included, published in Pew Research Centre on August 12, 2022, by Rebecca Leppert.
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
Bernstein, M., Pfefferbaum, B. Posttraumatic Growth as a Response to Natural Disasters in Children and Adolescents. Curr Psychiatry Rep 20, 37 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-018-0900-4
Blackie, L. E. R., Jayawickreme, E., Helzer, E. G., Forgeard, M. J. C., & Roepke, A. M. (2015). Investigating the Veracity of Self-Perceived Posttraumatic Growth: A Profile Analysis Approach to Corroboration. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(7), 788–796. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550615587986
Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (1990). Positive Aspects of Critical Life Problems: Recollections of Grief. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 20(4), 265–272. https://doi.org/10.2190/QDY6-6PQC-KQWV-5U7K
Feder, A., Southwick, S. M., Goetz, R. R., Wang, Y., Alonso, A., Smith, B. W., Buchholz, K. R., Waldeck, T., Ameli, R., Moore, J., Hain, R., Charney, D. S., & Vythilingam, M. (2008). Posttraumatic growth in former Vietnam prisoners of war. Psychiatry, 71(4), 359–370. https://doi.org/10.1521/psyc.2008.71.4.359
Graff-Reed, R. L. (2004). Positive Effects of Stressful Life Events: Psychological Growth Following Divorce [Doctoral dissertation, Miami University]. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=miami1090438043
Grummitt, L. R., Kreski, N. T., Kim, S. G., Platt, J., Keyes, K. M., & McLaughlin, K. A. (2021). Association of Childhood Adversity With Morbidity and Mortality in US Adults: A Systematic Review. JAMA pediatrics, 175(12), 1269–1278. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.2320
Laceulle, O. M., Kleber, R. J., & Alisic, E. (2015). Children’s Experience of Posttraumatic Growth: Distinguishing General from Domain-Specific Correlates. PloS one, 10(12), e0145736. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0145736
Logan, A. C., Berman, S. H., Scott, R. B., Berman, B. M., & Prescott, S. L. (2021). Catalyst Twenty-Twenty: Post-Traumatic Growth at Scales of Person, Place and Planet. Challenges, 12(1), 9. https://doi.org/10.3390/challe12010009
Lowe, S. R., Manove, E. E., & Rhodes, J. E. (2013). Posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth among low-income mothers who survived Hurricane Katrina. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 81(5), 877–889. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033252
Manove, E. E., Lowe, S. R., Bonumwezi, J., Preston, J., Waters, M. C., & Rhodes, J. E. (2019). Posttraumatic growth in low-income Black mothers who survived Hurricane Katrina. The American journal of orthopsychiatry, 89(2), 144–158. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000398
Olson, K., Shanafelt, T., & Southwick, S. (2020). Pandemic-Driven Posttraumatic Growth for Organizations and Individuals. JAMA, 324(18), 1829–1830. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2020.20275
Siqveland, J., Hafstad, G. S., & Tedeschi, R. G. (2012). Posttraumatic growth in parents after a natural disaster. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 17(6), 536–544. https://doi.org/10.1080/15325024.2012.678778
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of traumatic stress, 9(3), 455–471. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02103658
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1–18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20447194
Ulloa, E., Guzman, M. L., Salazar, M., & Cala, C. (2016). Posttraumatic Growth and Sexual Violence: A Literature Review. Journal of aggression, maltreatment & trauma, 25(3), 286–304. https://doi.org/10.1080/10926771.2015.1079286
August 24, 2023
Author: Anya Kamenetz
Editor: Colleen Rollins, Ph.D.