M. Jackson Group Update – January 2016 – Posttraumatic Growth

This month’s article is from Ken Pope’s listserv. I love this concept and what it can mean for working with negative events that not only cannot be changed, but can be used as a springboard to growth.  The article is as follows:
*Scientific American* includes an article: “How to Find Meaning in Suffering; Useful insights from research on ‘post-traumatic growth'” by Kasley Killam.

Here are some excerpts:

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The psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote extensively about this process after observing that his fellow inmates in concentration camps were more likely to survive the horrific conditions if they held on to a sense of meaning.

To understand how this process is possible, researchers have studied a fascinating phenomenon called post-traumatic growth. First identified in the mid-nineties by the psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, post-traumatic growth is when a person experiences positive changes resulting from a major life crisis. According to the research, post-traumatic growth goes beyond resilience; by actively searching for good in something terrible, a person can use adversity as a catalyst for advancing to a higher level of psychological functioning. Survivors of sexual assault report post-traumatic growth as early as two weeks later, but the timeline and nature of growth varies from person to person.

Five positive changes signal post-traumatic growth and provide a useful framework for how to make the best out of the worst situations. The first is personal strength. Tragedy exposes our vulnerability in an unpredictable world and therefore may cause us to feel weak or helpless. But, paradoxically, it can also boost our self-confidence and lead us to view ourselves as stronger. For instance, a car crash survivor reported that the incident motivated her to take charge of her life with greater determination and willpower. People may feel empowered by realizing that overcoming a past challenge means they will be able to overcome future challenges.

The second is relationships. Whether bonding on a deeper level with friends and family or feeling connected to strangers who have gone through similar difficulties, suffering can bring people closer together. Social support is especially important for healing; discussing and processing hardships with other people assists with meaning-making. For instance, women emerging from intimate partner violence undergo more growth if they discuss their abuse with a role model. Suffering may also prompt us to be more compassionate toward others: A recent study out of Yale and MIT showed that survivors of violence felt more empathy for Liberian refugees and therefore acted more altruistically, such as by hosting the refugees in their homes.

The third way to grow from trauma is through greater life appreciation. Tragedy can shift our perspective, inspire us to value good things more, and renew our intention to make the most of our lives. One approach to focusing on gratitude is to sit down once a week and write a list of things for which you are grateful from the week prior. Researchers found that this exercise was linked to higher life satisfaction, more optimism, and fewer health complaints. Another strategy is to savor and fully enjoy the things that bring us joy, such as a hot mug of coffee, the sunset, or spending time with a friend.

The fourth is beliefs, which may change or be reinforced as a result of grief. As researchers explain, people may evolve existentially to see themselves and their role in the world differently or to feel a new spiritual connection, which can influence their sense of purpose or their faith, respectively. For instance, religious parents whose child is diagnosed with cancer might understand their struggle as God’s will, consistent with their previous beliefs. Conversely, they may question whether God exists at all, thereby challenging their previous beliefs. Research suggests that individuals benefit from attempting to reconstruct or reaffirm their sense of meaning in this way.

Lastly, the fifth positive change is new possibilities. In the aftermath of trauma, people may perceive that new opportunities are available and pursue them. Consider a man who gets fired, feels ashamed and depressed, but soon after starts working on what he is truly passionate about, which wasn’t possible at his former job. One method of identifying new possibilities is to envision your ideal life in the future and strategize about bringing that vision to fruition. A study showed that people felt significantly happier after spending twenty minutes each day for four days writing about their imagined best possible selves or planning their goals. Plus, this activity can increase optimism.


Several factors can facilitate this process [of turning personal suffering into growth]. One is receiving care; it is important to seek out emotional and practical support from loved ones or community members following trauma. Another is approaching rather than avoiding the task of coping by accepting the tragedy as irreversible and embracing the grief process. A final factor is recognizing that we are in charge of how we move forward, and thereby perceiving control over our recovery.

Of course, the fact of post-traumatic growth does not imply that trauma is good or that suffering should be belittled. Survivors of the recent terrorist attacks and the families and friends of victims likely incurred psychological damage and are no doubt experiencing immense pain and sorrow. Fortunately, distress and post-traumatic growth can and often do occur simultaneously.


After the September 11 terrorist attacks, researchers observed that kindness, gratitude, teamwork, and other virtues increased among American citizens. We have seen this phenomenon continually throughout history; the recent crises are no exception. Trauma drives change, and that change can be positive. Post-traumatic growth points to ways in which we can use our struggles–as individuals or a nation–as springboards for greater meaning and transformation.

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The article is online at:

Ken Pope


“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”
–Ben Okri, Nigerian Poet & Novelist

Take care,