Learn / What Is Post-Traumatic Growth?
Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a positive and ongoing inner change after trauma or a highly distressing situation. PTG can occur simultaneously with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One does not negate or invalidate the other.
PTG can positively change your outlook on life and place you on a more bright, resilient path. This offers hope to those who may feel discouraged by what they’ve gone through and how it affects their place in the world.
You likely won’t feel positive changes immediately after a traumatic event. Most who do recognize PTG notice it after they’ve put space between their trauma1 and had some time to heal, which is part of the 5 stages of PTG.
A singular traumatic event or recurrent trauma prime you for post-traumatic growth. Though the experience will likely cause distress, it’s a necessary aspect of PTG.
A variety of traumas can eventually connect to PTG. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as2
Traumatic situations will impact your mental, physical, and emotional health. A non-exclusive list of trauma examples include
Reflecting on how you’ve changed since your trauma can prompt post-traumatic growth. You may not gravitate towards reflection naturally, especially if your memories still cause pain. A therapist, spouse, or friend may notice it first.
You may sit on this awareness for days, weeks, or months. Even if you don’t act on the awareness right away, realizing you’ve grown from something terrible can offer encouragement and hope.
Next, you can see where you’ve grown. You may identify your growth by yourself, with a therapist, or a loved one. You can take a deeper look at the areas you’ve grown in and find encouragement from the positive changes.
For example, you may notice you’ve become more sure of yourself and your identity1. Or, you may notice you have a greater appreciation for your life and your loved ones. You may also be more aware of what you want out of life.
Your trauma may have left you with negative beliefs about yourself and the world. As you heal, your beliefs may change—maybe without you noticing. When you become aware of your growth and explore it, you can also see what beliefs align with your new growth.
For example, you may believe you’re more equipped to handle hardships because you’ve survived one and grown. This can reinforce your self-efficacy.
Once you’ve become aware of your growth, explored it, and developed new beliefs based upon it, you can then integrate your growth into your daily life. Your growth may make you more confident, more empathetic, and more resilient. Those qualities may direct you to a new line of work, a volunteering opportunity, or creative outlet.
You may feel drawn to supporting others. With your strengths and insights, you could help others in similar situations and inspire hope. While that’s in no way a requirement, some trauma survivors feel highly fulfilled doing so.
You can look for the signs of PTG3 in yourself and those you love.
Getting through a crisis or traumatic experience can make you value the life you have, especially if your trauma was life-threatening. Or, you may simply feel grateful for positive experiences after enduring such negativity.
For example, if you survived a car crash, you may feel more thankful for your life and what you can make of it.
Trauma survivors sometimes develop a “sixth-sense”, where they become more attuned to the emotions and behaviors of others. Their experiences can help them relate to others4 and develop a strong sense of empathy.
A change in priorities is a strong sign of post-traumatic growth4. For example, you may unwaveringly prioritize family time after a traumatic event.
In another example, a traumatic experience may awaken you to your true passions. Perhaps you suddenly realize your corporate job can’t compare to the fulfillment of painting. As you experience PTG, you may pursue a painting career to prioritize fulfillment.
Post-traumatic growth typically involves an increase in your personal strength1 and self-confidence. Those with PTG are more confident in their abilities to overcome challenges and make difficult decisions.
Several approaches to healing promote PTG. While interpersonal factors and characteristics of the trauma influence PTG5 too, the ways you heal play a large role in PTG. The following approaches are just a few that can promote PTG.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy helps trauma survivors safely process trauma. Processing the trauma can lead to quicker healing and a shorter path to post-traumatic growth.
In an EMDR session, your therapist will have you track an object back and forth as you quietly or verbally recall traumatic memories. Eye movement helps you focus on something other than the strong emotions associated with the memories and process the trauma faster.
CBCT is “a trauma-focused conjoint therapy1 that has a session specifically devoted to PTG.” Therapists use it to treat PTSD and trauma, though it can also improve depressive and anxious symptoms.
CBCT, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), addresses thoughts and behaviors with a focus on trauma symptoms6 (numbing, avoidance).
CBCT can help you cope with the cognitive and emotional effects of trauma and promote the growth associated with PTG.
PE works by exposing you to memories or other stimuli7 that “cognitively restructures beliefs about [your] sense of safety”, especially if and when you encounter the trauma again outside a therapeutic environment.
You may imagine the stimulus or confront it in the real world, sometimes as a “homework assignment” after therapy. Therapists tailor the type and amount of exposure to avoid distress and facilitate healing.
As you become desensitized to the stimuli and more confident in your safety, your PTG can blossom.
CPT addresses trauma and helps patients reconstruct beliefs7 about themselves, others, and the world. It encourages reflection on positive changes since starting treatment.
Doing so, you can change your internal narrative and stimulate PTG.
Negative emotions after trauma (shame, guilt, depression) can hinder PTG3. These emotions can prevent someone from seeking treatment, as they may feel addressing their trauma is too painful.
Fear, avoidance, and hypersensitivity–all symptoms of PTSD–can make treatment seem daunting as well. Negative feedback from friends and family can also hinder treatment and PTG.
Participants in one study said PTG began once they had an internal need for change3. Until that need is realized, PTG may not begin and may never take effect.
Feeling forced or expected to have positive growth after a terrible event can add undue pressure8 and hinder PTG.
Support from friends and family and professional help from a mental health professional can help you overcome obstacles to PTG3. They can help you see a need for change by looking through their eyes and seeing your situation from another perspective.
You can also reflect on your present life and how you would like to grow. This can encourage ambition and a strong desire for change that ends with PTG.
PTG can also be presented as a positive, but optional, aspect of trauma healing—not something that must happen. Rather than expecting PTG, providers and patients can instead be aware of it and accept it if it comes.
PTG will look different for each person, but a few examples include
Trauma changes those who experience it. Sometimes, the changes can be positive. Even so, trauma can be a heavy weight to hold. Professional treatment can help you manage its effects and facilitate post-traumatic growth.
Rehabs for trauma provide intensive care and support for your recovery. Browse our list of trauma rehabs to learn about their approaches to trauma treatment, see photos, and verify your insurance.
Dell’Osso, Liliana, et al. “Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) in the Frame of Traumatic Experiences.” Clinical Neuropsychiatry, vol. 19, no. 6, pp. 390–93. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.36131/cnfioritieditore20220606.
Trauma and Violence. 14 Jan. 2019, https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence.
Bryngeirsdottir, Hulda S., and Sigridur Halldorsdottir. “The Challenging Journey from Trauma to Post‐traumatic Growth: Lived Experiences of Facilitating and Hindering Factors.” Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, vol. 36, no. 3, Sept. 2022, pp. 752–68. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1111/scs.13037.
Fujisawa, Takashi X., et al. “Neural Basis of Psychological Growth Following Adverse Experiences: A Resting-State Functional MRI Study.” PLoS ONE, vol. 10, no. 8, Aug. 2015, p. e0136427. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0136427.
Devine, Katie A., et al. “Posttraumatic Growth in Young Adults Who Experienced Serious Childhood Illness: A Mixed-Methods Approach.” Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, vol. 17, no. 4, Dec. 2010, pp. 340–48. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10880-010-9210-7.
Brown-Bowers, Amy, et al. “Cognitive-Behavioral Conjoint Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Application to a Couple’s Shared Traumatic Experience.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 68, no. 5, May 2012, pp. 536–47. PubMed, https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.21850.
Pierce, Zachary P., et al. “Therapeutic Interventions Impact Brain Function and Promote Post-Traumatic Growth in Adults Living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Studies.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 14, 2023. Frontiers, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1074972.
Robson, David. The Complicated Truth of Post-Traumatic Growth. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20220311-the-complicated-truth-of-post-traumatic-growth.
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