Posttraumatic Growth… ancient, universal and not well understood

This summer I have spent most of my time researching and digging up info on what is being called Posttraumatic growth (PTG) experience. Most of what I’ve learnt about the phenomenon, in particular relation to violence and abuse, I have included in my systematic review. However, while learning about the phenomenon of PTG I wondered how far back could I trace any documented accounts? I got to learn some curious historical facts that’ve decided to share here, and hope others may find it as intriguing as me.

What is PTG on the first hand?…According to Tedeschi, one of the developers of PTG research: ‘’at least for some people, an encounter with trauma, which may contain elements of great suffering and loss, can also lead to highly positive changes in the individual. It is a change in people that goes beyond the ability to resist and not be changed by highly stressful circumstances; it involves a movement beyond pre-trauma levels of adaptation and has a quality of transformation, or a qualitative change in functioning.’’

In short PTG holds that while trauma can be painful and have highly negative outcomes, there is also an opportunity that trauma can serve as a catalyst towards personal growth in one’s life.

So, when was it that people realised that with suffering comes strength?

Starting with the Bible itself,  I found a number of suggestions of positive transformation in the aftermath of suffering, such as: ‘’we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance, character; and character, hope’’. Another example is the biblical narrative of the Great flood found in the Book of Genesis and the Quran. It depicts a symbolic rainbow with which God promises Noah not to kill again and that this is the beginning of a new life.

Another, quite touching story is about Buddha and the development of his enlightening view. Born in a royal family in North India, before his enlightenment Buddha was a prince whose parents wanted to keep away from the pain and dissatisfaction of the world. The first 29 years of his life were filled with all aspects of joy, until a time when he met with suffering in 3 subsequent days. Outside his castle ‘’he saw someone desperately sick, someone wrecked with age, and finally someone dead. He was beyond thinking of himself, but the awareness that pain strikes everyone gave him no rest’’. Stroke by this insightful experience about the inevitability of suffering, Buddha fled his palace and began his journey into the understanding of mind’s timeless essence and all beings’ wish for lasting happiness. His countless encounters with pain allowed him to mature, to learn about the human mind’s potential which later led to his enlightenment. The symbol of a rainbow is also found in Buddhism and serves as a reminder of the positive.

A quite popular example of posttraumatic growth motive, found in a non-religious context, is the myth of a phoenix being born from its own ashes after being fiercely burn. Interestingly the myth is found in the mythologies of many ancient cultures such as Arabian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese, and Indians.

Also, from the time of the ancient Greeks to the present day, tragedy has been a dominant theme in great literary work and that the popularity of such texts has impelled authors and philosophers to ponder what attracts people to themes of suffering. For instance, Aristotle’s Poetics offers plots where the protagonist is involved in a high degree of suffering, usually involving physical harm and death. When a character is unfortunate, the hero’s remorse provides a catharsis that is purifying, and perhaps therapeutic for the spectator shared opinion among representatives of the moral understanding of tragic catharsis is that Aristotle contemplated tragedy to be ‘’particularly well suited for educating the emotions and for building character; for it offers a way we can learn to know  and develop the appropriate emotional responses without having to undergo ourselves in reality the dramatic situations represented in a play.’’

Perhaps, the best know suggestion of posttraumatic growth in written text comes from the German philosopher Nietzche, whose words: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” still resonate in Western society. There are numerous debates regarding the accuracy of his statement.

Actually, among the most expressive defenders of the idea of positive changes following adversity was the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. His book ‘’Man’s Search for Meaning’’ chronicles his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, the loss of his family and his struggle to survive. He writes: ‘’The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity- even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.’’ During his career, Frankl developed logotherapy and taught about the two-sided face of suffering – while there might be nothing inherently good  in misfortune, it might be possible that to extract something good out of misfortune.

Currently, the idea of meaning found in a suffering finds further support in the work of the existential psychologist Irwin Yalom. He teaches about four ultimate human concerns: death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness and how confrontation with each of these may result in an existential conflict. In his words: ‘’A core existential conflict is the tension between the awareness of the inevitability of death and the wish to continue to be…A real confrontation with death usually causes one to question with real seriousness the goals and conduct of one’s life up to then.’’

The historical accounts of the PTG phenomenon go on and on. This makes me wonder whether PTG knowledge can find a place within psychotherapy and whether there is something we can learn from it about the human nature in times of adversity.  Fortunately, empirical interest has noticed the PTG potential. A more recent and scientific attention to PTG has occurred in the past decade with the development of positive psychology. The field advocates that life comprises of ups and downs and that it is naïve to hope for a life without any pain, rather to understand how to learn and grow from adversity. This makes me feel optimistic about the future of our understanding and treatment of trauma. Or, is it too naive to think that through tough experiences people are presented with a chance to develop an ability to cope with difficult situations in the future and simply because a misfortunate has happened to someone it means that they are condemned to be damaged from then on?

A.

Sources:

Frankl V.E., (1985) Man’s Search for Meaning, New York: Washington Square Press

Joseph S., (2011) What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth, Basic Books, New York

Nydahl (2008) The way things are: a living approach to Buddhism, John Hunt Pub

Tedeschi, R. G.,Calhoun L., (2006). Handbook of posttraumatic growth: research and practice, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers

Yalom, (1980), Existential Psychotherapy, Basic Books

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