We've all heard of post-traumatic stress, which is generally used to describe feelings of anxiety and fear following a frightening or life-threatening experience, such as receiving a cancer diagnosis and undergoing treatment. However, such experiences can also cause a positive life change or a period of improvement. In fact, some studies suggest that reports of growth following a traumatic event are more common than reports of psychiatric disorders taking place from the experience.
A new term—“post-traumatic growth”—has emerged to describe this phenomenon. Although the term may be relatively new, the concept that suffering can be a source of positive change has deep roots in the history of many philosophies and traditions.
Researchers note that post-traumatic growth should not be confused with resilience. Resilience describes patients "bouncing back" or returning to their previous levels of functioning, whereas post-traumatic growth refers to a personal gain of some kind.
Types of post-traumatic growth
The lessons learned through the process of coping with the challenging situation can translate into personal growth that is typically expressed in a number of ways:
- Improved interpersonal relationships: Experiencing increased feelings of closeness or intimacy with family or friends
- New life experiences: Making a change in career, overcoming a fear, or accomplishing a life goal
- A greater appreciation for life: Having increased awareness about your position in the world or new sense of vulnerability to death that changes how you live each day
- A sense of personal strength: Finding increased psychological rigor, resilience, or sense of empowerment
- Spiritual development: Gaining an increased interest in practicing religion or integrating spirituality into daily life
It should also be noted that experiencing post-traumatic growth does not necessarily mean that the person has overcome the stressor. In fact, most people who report post-traumatic growth also report simultaneously experiencing struggles with their trauma. This phenomenon is described by experts as "suffering meaningfully."
Post-traumatic growth, like post-traumatic stress, is by no means universal. Research suggests there are some factors that make patients more likely to experience post-traumatic growth. These include an ability to confront trauma and focus on new experiences, a support network that encourages personal growth, and individual coping strategies that help the person adapt to new challenges.
Facilitating post-traumatic growth
To help encourage post-traumatic growth in your life in response to a difficult life experience, consider the following recommendations:
Find ways to minimize tension and anxiety: Make time to reduce your anxiety by using relaxation techniques, engaging in recreation, or talking to supportive friends or a counselor.
Reflection: You may consider journaling  or talking with a friend as a way to process your memories of the trauma and make sense of the experience.
Restore a sense of safety: To feel less vulnerable, some people may need to speak with a professional trained in mental health, while others may find solace talking to a chaplain or spending time in nature and solitude. Seek the support of others; engaging with a network of other survivors of similar experiences can help you regain a sense of safety and/or perceive your cancer experience in a different light. Learn more about support groups .
Create a post-trauma life vision: Think through what you have learned from this experience and how it affects your strategy for living more fully.
Last Updated: April 18, 2011