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Turning Trauma into Triumph: How Tragedy Can Lead to Life’s Greatest Blessing

It may seem overly optimistic and unrealistic, until you talk to someone who has experienced it: Extreme trauma can lead to the oft-unrealized blessing of true inner peace and a better life.

There have been examples throughout history: Princess Diana’s children, Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s inspirational life and even soldiers like J.R. Martinez, who despite having PTSD and losing half his face in a roadside bomb attack, went on to become a daytime drama television star and a motivational speaker.

Much like “The Bionic Man” or “The Bionic Woman,” with the right treatment, therapists can rebuild those who have suffered great trauma to live like they never have before. People are learning to live fuller lives, with more gratitude and more emotional intelligence than they ever thought possible. This phenomenon, known as post-traumatic growth, is being studied by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

According to the university’s website, post-traumatic growth is “a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or traumatic event. Although we coined the term post-traumatic growth, the idea that human beings can be changed by their encounters with life challenges, sometimes in radically positive ways, is not new.”1

What is new is studying the phenomenon with an end goal of using it in therapy.

Post-traumatic growth, according to the Post-Traumatic Growth Research Group at UNC Charlotte, occurs in a variety of ways. “Sometimes people who must face major life crises develop a sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle, opening up possibilities that were not present before,” the research group reports on its website. There also can be “an increased sense of one’s own strength” (i.e. “If I lived through that, I can face anything”).

Soldier talking to counselor about PTSD

Chronically Illness the Focus of Many Post-Traumatic Growth Studies

Post-traumatic growth has been studied most in the context of those living with a serious medical condition such as HIV/AIDS or surviving cancer.

In a systematic review published in the journal Disability and Rehabilitation, “Quality of social support, patients’ coping strategies and several indicators of mental and physical health were consistently associated with post-traumatic growth,” the authors found. “Associations between growth and health-related variables (e.g. physical deficits, pain, depression, anxiety) varied depending on different study design (cross-sectional versus longitudinal) and the sample composition.”2

In a report published in the journal Health Care Analysis, British sociologists argue that care models should be constructed around notions of “flourishing” and post-traumatic growth.

“This framework challenges conventional healthcare policies and practices, but in ways that offer insights into how patient-centered approaches to chronic illness and disability might be better conceived and enabled,” the authors conclude. “It also throws into doubt the rectitude of an economic model built around services and products designed to provide easy access to sources of immediate gratification.”3

Post-Traumatic Growth as Treatment Sees Promise

Research about post-traumatic growth is relatively new but shows tremendous promise. “Previous investigations of the impact of trauma-related psychotherapy on clinicians have emphasized the hazardous nature of such work,” Debora Arnold, et. al., report in Journal of Humanistic Psychology.4 “These descriptions of positive sequelae are strikingly similar to reports of growth following directly experienced trauma and suggest that the potential benefits of working with trauma survivors may be significantly more powerful and far-reaching than the existing literature’s scant focus on positive sequelae would indicate.”

In the Health Care Analysis paper, the author explains, “Traumatic experiences-age, by definition challenges to pre-existing assumptions. Suddenly driving is no longer a relatively safe and mundane activity but one that can include painful, life-threatening accidents. A second future is abruptly undermined by the discovery of cancer. The world is literally turned upside down in the course of a shipwreck and the survivor experiences the agonies of those who do not survive.”

Man in Recovery Says Near-Death Experiences Brought Upon Personal Growth

“My experiences with dying actually help me grow–I had a lot of trauma from dying several times, and the traditional linear way of treating addiction only went so deep. I was forced through my own pain to perhaps go a lot deeper than a typical person in early recovery. So, I had to do things like neurofeedback, sound healing, breath work, meditation and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). I used many really deep healing techniques,” writes Hollis C. on the Heroes in Recovery sober community website.5 “If this is a brain disease, we need to treat it as a brain disease. When someone comes in and says, ‘I’m resistant with the 12 Steps,’ many people say, ‘well, he’s just not willing, he’s just not ready.’ That completely discounts the brain disease approach. I definitely believe it is a brain change. I believe the brain is greatly affected by trauma. But if that is the case, then that whole ‘he’s not willing’ thing goes out the window. We need to offer more on our end (on the professional end– call us professionals, call us facilitators, whatever you may want to call it). We need to grow ourselves so we can help save more lives.”

Growth does come through suffering. “The distress of a traumatic event can be met with approach-oriented coping, such as addressing the situation and managing emotions, or with avoidance-oriented coping, such as denial or the use of drugs and alcohol which suppress them. There is ample evidence that the former is more likely to lead to resolution and the latter to continuing difficulties,” according to the Health Care Analysis paper.

1. Posttraumatic Growth Research Group. Department of Psychology. UNC Charlotte. What is PTG? Retrieved March 18, 2017, from
2. Barskova, T. et al. (2009, 31 (21), 1709-33). Posttraumatic growth in people living with a serious medical condition and its relations to physical and mental health: A systematic review. Retrieved March 18, 2017, from
3. Middleton, H. (2016, 24: 133-147). Flourishing and Posttraumatic Growth: An Empirical Take on Ancient Wisdoms. Health Care Analysis. Retrieved March 18, 2017, from
4. Debora Arnold, L. et al. Vicarious Posttraumatic Growth in Psychotherapy. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Retrieved March 18, 2017, from
5. Hollis C. Heroes in Recovery. There is always hope. Retrieved March 18, 2017, from

Written by David Heitz

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