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Managing Post-Traumatic Growth

Supporting Positive Change After a Crisis

Managing Post-Traumatic Growth - Supporting Positive Change After a Crisis

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Post-Traumatic Growth is a transformational, positive response to a crisis.

Life is full of surprises, but some of them can be devastating. Sudden job loss, suffering serious injury in a road crash, the breakup of a long relationship, or the sudden death of a loved one can traumatize long into the future.

Such extreme circumstances can cause us to question everything we thought we knew about ourselves and our lives. It can feel like the whole world has shifted, from a secure and familiar 'before' to a disturbing and alien 'after.'

But some people are able to turn disaster into something so positive that it's as surprising as the trauma itself. Psychologists refer to this transformative experience as Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG).

In this article, we explore what Post-Traumatic Growth is, how to manage someone who is experiencing it, and what you can do to grow – at least to some extent – if you've been through a crisis.

What Is Post-Traumatic Growth?

The term Post-Traumatic Growth was coined in 1995 by psychologists Dr Richard Tedeschi and Dr Lawrence Calhoun. They expanded on their research in their 2004 paper, "Post-Traumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence." [1]

Tedeschi and Calhoun found that some people who had been through a "seismic" event experienced an unexpected, positive outcome. For example, they had a new appreciation for life, they developed more meaningful relationships, they felt deeper empathy for others' suffering, or they reported "an increased sense of personal strength."

In fact, the psychologists found that the people they studied weren't just coping or demonstrating resilience, and hoping to return to normality – they frequently expressed thankfulness for the altered life that now lay ahead of them. Another study found that people experiencing PTG benefitted from improved self-esteem and life satisfaction, and less depression. [2]

Post-Traumatic Growth is not about ignoring the truth of what's happened to you and carrying on regardless. Nor is it a cure for pain, fear or distress. Rather, it involves experiencing strongly negative and positive emotions at the same time, and this can be difficult to handle. Tedeschi and Calhoun observed that an ability to handle such a paradox was key to continued PTG.

PTG cannot be forced, and it often comes as a surprise to the people experiencing it, but there are internal and external factors that seem to increase the likelihood of it happening. We explore some of these in more detail below.

How to Manage Someone Experiencing Post-Traumatic Growth

A person who has suffered a trauma may receive support from friends and/or family, but occupational support can be just as powerful in promoting PTG. If you're a manager or leader, create an environment that fosters Post-Traumatic Growth by showing empathy and flexibility, and ensuring physical and psychological safety.

Listen

Being able to talk openly about what's happened, to people who are willing to listen, is key to Post-Traumatic Growth. Ask your co-worker if they would like to share what they've experienced, and set aside time to listen to them. Instead of asking lots of questions, which could overwhelm your colleague, it's more important that you allow them to speak freely and reflect in their own time.

Our article, Empathic Listening, and Book Insight, How to Listen, explore how you can develop a deeper understanding of what people are really trying to say to you. This is important, as people going through PTG often fear being judged or disbelieved.

Set Challenges

Some workers who experience PTG gain a sense of accomplishment and find their work more meaningful. Their self-confidence may also grow, and some seek new career opportunities and challenges, or demonstrate positive leadership where they didn't before. [3]

Also, someone going through PTG often feels a surge in ambition and in their willingness to learn. If your team members shows these signs, don't be afraid to give them tasks that challenge them. You can find out how to do this in our article, High-Performance Coaching.

Be sure to check in regularly with your team member, and ensure that you are stretching them just the right amount. You don't want to overwork them!

Build Team Trust

With your team member's permission, and within the bounds of confidentiality, you can make their colleagues aware of the situation, so that they can help you to create a safe and supportive environment, too. Our article, Building Great Work Relationships, has tips and strategies on how to do this, such as building trust, being emotionally intelligent, and showing empathy.

Note:

Trauma can have serious psychological impact. Be aware of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as lack of concentration, memory problems, and anxiety. Alert your HR department if you suspect that your team member may be experiencing this, so that they can get the right professional support.

The physical, mental and emotional impact of the trauma could become overwhelming if it's only addressed in an amateur, if well-meaning, way.

Managing Your Own Post-Traumatic Growth

If you've struggled, or are struggling, after an extreme career or life crisis, you will likely recognize some of the symptoms that we've mentioned, and others such as disorientation, mood swings and flashbacks.

If so, the best thing you can do is seek professional help. Talk to your HR department or a health professional. Speaking to a psychotherapist about your trauma can not only help to come to terms with what happened and to alleviate these symptoms, but it can also increase the likelihood of PTG. [4]

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And while PTG can't be forced, there are other things you can do to actuate and nurture it. Following these seven steps will set you on the right path:

  1. Allow yourself time to talk honestly about how you feel, particularly with people who have suffered something similar to you. By reflecting on what has happened, you'll be better equipped to manage and regulate your emotions.
  2. Engage with the world around you, and appreciate all the good things that it has to offer.
  3. Accept offers of support and ask for help when you need it.
  4. Reflect on any aspect of your life where your own actions had a negative impact on yourself or others, and make positive changes as a result.
  5. Help others. In a 2020 paper, Tedeschi states that, "People do better in the aftermath of trauma if they find work that benefits others." [5] To take advantage of this, you could do volunteer or charitable work in your community, for example.
  6. Be open to new experiences and opportunities, including new friendships.
  7. Take on new challenges or learn new skills.

Tip:

A person who already approaches life with an optimistic outlook will more likely grow after experiencing a major challenge. Also, those who are used to coping with adversity will likely do so again. Our article on cognitive restructuring explores this in more detail.

Key Points

While we would rather go through life without ever experiencing trauma, Post-Traumatic Growth is a positive and transformative experience. It often gives the individual a stronger appreciation for life, and they may perceive themself to be improved by having undergone an event that has completely shattered their previous view of life.

Many of the common outcomes of PTG can be advantageous in the workplace, too. Team members who have emerged stronger after trauma are often ready for new challenges and have a desire to help others.

PTG cannot be forced, but there are internal factors and external factors that make it more likely to occur.

To support a team member through PTG, create an environment that allows them to talk about their experience and assign tasks that match their desire to be challenged. But be aware that they may still suffer symptoms of trauma, and you should swiftly seek professional advice if this happens.

If you are experiencing PTG, or hope to achieve it, don't be afraid to accept help. Allow yourself time to process your thoughts and feelings, and talk about them to people who you trust. Also, be as positive and optimistic as you can.

Terms reproduced by permission of Psychological Inquiry journal.

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Comments (4)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi Stephany_Gray,

    You ask good questions about your PTG. As article points out, you are not alone. There are others who, like you, are transformed by traumatic experiences.

    Michele
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago Stephany_Gray wrote
    So I was talking to a close friend and she told me about this. I think that I have PTG because I have always been happy. People say that the things that I have been through they are mean, but I'm not. I want to know that makes me different. What at the time could have made me who I am? I don't know. Am I the only one that has been like this or is there more. The things that I have been reading is saying that it can happen over time. But that is not the case for me. Is my mind and thinking different from other people? I wish I could find things like this out. It has got me really thinking. People say that what a person grows up around will make them who they are. Like if someone yells then that person could end up yelling at others when they are older. But my mom use to beat me but I don't hurt other people. I don't like to hurt people it hurts me. There is websites and videos saying how you can learn to grow from PTSD. But I want to know why have I always had it? How did my child mind get me to where I am today? How to go through my great aunt throwing up blood in the same room at the age of 6 years old, and not having nightmares from it? There is so many things that I have been through that I don't understand why I have never had PTSD but I have always had PTG?
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi Yolande,

    Thank you so much for your insightful comment. I found this article and the perspectives to bring a new light into career growth for those suffering from Trauma or Anxiety Disorders. I had not heard of PTG before, and I will be sure to do some more research into the approach.
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