“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. How many times have we heard that? Post relationship break-up, post-car crash, literal or metaphorical, post any kind of upsetting life event.
Turns out it might be true, as summarised by Stephen Joseph’s nice review this month of the potential for post-traumatic growth. He looked at several studies, including long-term research on Isreali combat victims. The research showed that up to a point, people with greater distress and symptoms of post-trauma (like flashbacks, avoidance or high anxiety) were the ones that showed greater levels of improved mental wellbeing later on.
Examples of improved psychological functioning were seen in areas such as gaining a new and more helpful perspective on life, prioritising intimate relationships and viewing oneself as a stronger individual. No one would wish a traumatic event on anyone, but the research suggests that experiencing trauma can make us improve in some ways, if we manage to overcome it.
Joseph suggests that in order to grow from trauma, we might need to think about the trauma after it happens, and that symptoms of post traumatic stress, if handled correctly, help us do this. This fits with cognitive behavioural therapy for PTSD, which encourages people to “relive” the bad things that have happened within a safe and therapeutic environment, and with a therapist to help challenge some of the unhelpful thoughts that might accompany the memories.