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Nov 2014 by PCI College

How to Grow Following Trauma: Reflections on Posttraumatic Growth

Although many survivors can experience distress following trauma, a significant proportion go on to report positive changes alongside their suffering. Dr. Kate Hefferon considers this fascinating phenomenon, entitled Posttraumatic growth, and how clinicians can potentially play a part in helping to facilitate this transformation.

Throughout millennia, societies have held variations of the same message, albeit told or portrayed in different ways: The experience of difficult and painful times can lead to positive transformation.

Many religions, such as Christianity and Judaism, as well as philosophical writings (e.g. Nietzsche, Yalom) and more recently, psychological research (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995), has attempted to understand the complex relationship between adversity and subsequent growth. Today, this line of research falls under the umbrella of Posttraumatic growth (PTG).

PTG is defined as ‘the experience of positive change that the individual experiences as a result of the struggle with a traumatic event’ (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2013, p. 6). The underlying premise here is ‘the possibility that positive change could be set in motion by the encounter with difficult life situations’ (p. 6). These changes include, but are not limited to: Perceived changes in self (feeling stronger in the self); Changed relationships (improved relationships with family and/or friends, etc.); Changed life philosophy (increased existential awareness); Changed priorities (new goals) and Enhanced spiritual beliefs (connection to higher power either faith or nature/universe) (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2010). Research into PTG has been conducted across several continents (e.g. North and South America, Australia, Europe, Asia and Africa ) and has found links to enhanced psychological and physical functioning  (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2013).

Although I am not a counsellor myself, I have spent a significant amount of time researching and listening to the experiences of individuals who have undergone significant trauma in their lives. These narratives of course touch upon the physical and psychological difficulties that follow traumatic events. However, a large majority discuss positive changes that have occurred through their struggle with adversity. It is important to note that this does not mean that their distress is ignored, nor are they necessarily “happy”. They are, however,  able to recognise more eudaimonic changes (e.g. increased purpose, meaning) that have occurred alongside their suffering and grief.

Clinicians have recently been offered suggestions on how to help facilitate the PTG process within clinical practice (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2013). The approach purports the role of the therapist as the “expert companion” (p. 2). The therapist is advised to take a stance of ‘non- judgment’ as the client attempts to makes sense of what has happened to them. Therapists are not advised to engage in direct attempts to foster growth, thus they must be aware of the categories of PTG and listen for them in the client sessions. If these arise, the therapist can then acknowledge them and discuss them, in the clients own words. The therapist must also help the client to see that the growth was a result of their own struggle, their own hard work, and not as a result of events alone. This gives power back to the client and moves it away from the trauma itself. Overall, it is argued that PTG should not be used solely as the sign of good intervention - it is not a universal experience and therefore cannot be the benchmark for success (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2013).

In conclusion, the area of PTG is a fascinating one- one that continues to challenge previously held beliefs that trauma is inevitably psychologically destructive to all who have the misfortune to experience it. Although more research is needed into the processes, predictors and impact of this phenomenon, clinicians now have support in how to facilitate and better guide clients who pronounce these positive changes in their sessions.

Dr Kate Hefferon, November 2014

Dr. Kate Hefferon will facilitate a one-day CPD workshop on Post-Traumatic Growth at PCI College, 7 Burgh Quay, Dublin 2 on Saturday 29th November.  You can book a place online now.

Hefferon, K. (2013). The body and positive psychology: The somatopsychic side to flourishing. UK: McGraw-Hill.
Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (2013). Posttraumatic growth in clinical practice. NY, NY: Routeledge.
Calhoun, L, Tedeschi, R., Cann, A. & Hanks, E. (2010). Positive outcomes following bereavement: Paths to posttraumatic growth. Psychologica Belgica, 50, 1-2, 125-143(19).

About Dr. Kate Hefferon:
Dr. Kate Hefferon is a Chartered Psychologist, Senior Lecturer and former Programme Leader of the MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of East London (UEL). She has recently opened the Posttraumatic Growth Research Unit at UEL, which aims to understand the phenomenon, particularly within the context of health behavior changes (e.g. physical activity and sport). She is the author of numerous peer-reviewed papers and book chapters as well lead and co-author on several popular positive psychology texts books, including ‘Positive Psychology: Theory, Research and Applications’ (2011), ‘Positive Psychology: The Somatopsychic Side to Flourishing’ (2013) and ‘Applied Positive Psychology: Integrated  Positive Practice’ (2014).

For more information, please see the author’s research website: www.katehefferon.com

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