By Mark E. Smith
In 1987, British humanitarian and envoy, Terry Waite, went to Lebanon to secure the release of four hostages. He, himself, was then taken hostage, enduring 1,763 days in solitary confinement – chained, beaten and subjected to mock execution.
Once released, Waite reflected on his experience years later, writing, “Suffering is universal: you attempt to subvert it so that it does not have a destructive, negative effect. You turn it around so that it becomes a creative, positive force.”
Waite’s interpretation of the impact of trauma is one that psychologists have been studying for some 30 years. It’s long been known that trauma – from early childhood experiences to those occurring later in life – can profoundly derail lives in so many destructive ways. It’s extremely hard to psychologically and emotionally recover when life has thrown you devastating blows. I know – I’ve had them. Yet, there’s a fascinating, researched side to trauma that many live, but few discuss: Trauma can serve as a mechanism for positive, personal growth.
Psychologists now formally call this process of turning trauma into triumph Post Traumatic Growth (PTG), which is the opposite of widely-known Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As I put it in context within my own life, I’m not better in spite of adversity; rather, I’m better because of adversity. No, I haven’t welcomed adversity into my life – after all, I didn’t choose my family’s dysfunction as a child or my cerebral palsy – but there’s no question it’s all shaped me into a person I’m proud of and fostered a strength toward successes I likely wouldn’t have otherwise. PTG is when you meet individuals whose lives seem to defy logic, those who’ve experienced trauma and adversity, only to go on to successful, healthy, happy lives.
Interestingly, researchers have found that approximately one-third of those who have experienced trauma or adversity have PTG as a catalyst in their lives. I look at the impact of PTG like exercising weights: adversity conditions us to lift among the heaviest of weights, so the rest of life (read that, far less weight) is easier to cope with and allows us perspectives others may not have. So, what are those perspectives?
Researchers looked at the common traits of PTG – that is, those not sunk by trauma and adversity, but elevated by it – and the common threads are striking: A greater appreciation and empathy toward others; an increased acceptance and comfort within oneself; and, an increased innate ability to live in the present and prioritize what’s truly important, having an unyielding sense of gratitude.
If you consider the emblematic positive effects of PTG, they seemingly go against logic, don’t they? After all, trauma and adversity do lead – at least in two-thirds of the population – to aspects of fear, distrust, resentment, self-defeat and bitterness, to name a few emotions. And, it all makes sense, as such reactions to trauma as PTSD are rightfully more common than not, tapping into totally valid, understandable emotional and mental states. It’s so difficult not to come out unscathed. Therefore, how is it that those with PTG escape the more-typical trauma-based path and actually become healthier, happier, more successful individuals? How has Terry Waite experienced among the worst that mankind can inflict, but has gone on to be a leading humanitarian on a global scale?
No one knows. However, what’s inspiring about research in Post Traumatic Growth is that it clearly shows the capacity of the human spirit to turn tragedy into triumph, where it may not be easily done, but it is possible. We don’t have to be defined by what’s happened to us. As Waite puts it, “Break my body, bend my mind, but my soul is not yours to possess….”