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Oct 31 2015

Ghosts and Flowers – The Paradoxes of Posttraumatic Growth

Ghosts and Flowers - The Paradoxes of Posttraumatic GrowthIt’s Halloween, a day of ghosts, ghouls and goblins – but this image is not about the ghosts of Halloween. It’s about the “ghosts” of PTSD and how they interact with the “flowers” of posttraumatic growth. It’s an image showing how complex the whole concept of posttraumatic growth is in the context of posttraumatic stress.

PTSD results from a tragedy in someone’s life. PTSD means that there has been a ripping apart of some aspect of a person’s reality, a massive gash or tear in the fabric of their life that they must contend with now.

War and natural disasters tear apart society, families, homes, infrastructure, possessions, physical bodies. Abuse destroys a person’s sense of self, independence, support structures, ability to think clearly and take positive actions on their own behalf.

The stress after trauma is overwhelming to the point of creating physiological changes. It affects one’s nervous system, brain functions, and the integrity of and access to their own identity. PTSD is debilitating and needs to be taken seriously.

In this image, this overwhelming, multi-faceted, layered, complex impact is depicted by the three ghostly creatures hovering over the person (danger overwhelming her senses), the surrounding darkness of her life that obliterates hope and goodness, her blue shroud of numbness, bracing, tension, stagnation, stuckness and avoidance, and the fact that her face (identity) is gone.

This stress is so extreme and overwhelming it blinds the person to anything positive about the world, themselves, and of course, their own growth, sometimes for years. It’s only with therapy that I personally have even been able to begin to glimpse any “growth,” and this is 8 years after the events.

The flowers in the image represent the posttraumatic growth. They are beautiful, once you have come through a large portion of the storm and can perceive them.

Much of the time the flowers of posttraumatic growth are completely invisible though. In my experience, the stress of living in a trauma based reality and perceiving danger everywhere really overpowers things and makes it difficult if not impossible to see any kind of growth that is happening inside myself.

I’m hoping that when viewing this illustration, there is a feeling of threat and danger that makes it hard to focus on and perceive all the gains. There should be a juxtaposition between the feeling of stress – creepy scary ghosts – and the noticing of positive things – flowers, beauty, positive words. This is what it is like to try to notice positive things within an overwhelming, threatening context; it is very difficult.

This illustration reflects my current state of 85% posttraumatic stress 15% posttraumatic growth, but I am hoping this will slowly change over time with the experiences of posttraumatic stress diminishing, and ability to experience posttraumatic growth increasing.

What is Posttraumatic Growth?

In my personal opinion, posttraumatic growth (PTG) is the collection of all the positive, life-enhancing, healthy internal and external changes an individual has made as they handled a traumatic event and all of the ramifications of the event such as the symptoms of posttraumatic stress. PTG consists of internal changes to personality traits, intelligences, values, attitudes, beliefs and perspectives and external changes to behavior patterns, life choices, strategies and interpersonal relationships. These characteristics were absent, latent or weaker prior to the traumatic events and are now manifesting as part of the personality, representing an overall gain of some kind and potentially leading to “posttraumatic thriving.”

Just to break this definition down further (These are the categories I would break PTG into right now based on my current level of recovery – I may revise this later)

8 Categories of Posttraumatic Growth

Internal Changes

  1. Personality Traits, Characteristics that include such traits as:
    • Self-Empathy
    • Accepting Support
    • Self-Discovery
    • Contribution
    • Sensitivity
    • Nonattachment
    • Letting go of ego defense mechanisms, becoming more non-defensive, openness
    • Prioritization of what is truly important, perspective, letting go of petty concerns
    • Universality (Lack of Prejudice)
    • Intuition
    • Humility, Humbleness
    • Self-Resurrection
    • Wisdom
    • Connection To Divine Nature, Spiritual Awakening
    • Knowledge About Psychology and Healing, Capacities to Help Others
    • Connection to a Higher Purpose
    • Becoming an Advocate to Prevent more Trauma of the Kind You Experienced in Others’ Lives
    • Generosity of Spirit
    • Compassion
    • Presence
    • Empathy
    • Introspection, Self-Knowledge, Self-Understanding, Self-Awareness
    • Inner Exploration
    • Overcoming Great Odds, Self-Overcoming
    • Self-Care; To Matter To Oneself
    • Self-Protection
    • Independence of Thought, Skepticism
    • Creativity
    • Outside The Box Problem-Solving, Innovation
    • Emotional Depth
    • Persistence, Determination, Resolve
    • Patience
    • Strength, Inner Strength
    • Courage, Bravery
    • Lack of Squeamishness
    • Dignity
    • Self-Love
    • Love
  2. Intelligences – such as Communicative Intelligence, Social Intelligence, Spatial Intelligence, Practical Intelligence – Quick Thinking, Thinking on Your Feet
  3. Values – such as valuing life more than material assets, valuing loved ones more than success, valuing standing up for what is right
  4. Attitudes, Beliefs and Perspectives – such as overcoming carelessness, frivolousness, recklessness, letting oneself be used by others, the belief “I come first,” “My way or the highway.” “Life is worthless.”

External Changes – Areas of Action

  1. Behavior Patterns – care-taking pattern, shame-based patterns (like in the book Healing the Shame the Binds You), codependency, austerity or scarcity patterns, self-destructive patterns, addictive patterns
  2. Life Choices – leave a relationship, change a job
  3. Strategies, Approaches and Solutions to Problems – facing a similar trauma more effectively
  4. Interpersonal Relationships – being kinder, more affectionate, letting things slide, laughing instead of fighting, listening better

Official Definitions

The official definition of posttraumatic growth (PTG) is: “positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. ” from the Posttraumatic Growth Research Group.

Posttraumaticgrowth.com defines it as, “a construct of positive psychological change that occurs as the result of one’s struggle with a highly challenging, stressful, and traumatic event.”

Wikipedia gives a great overview:

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) or benefit finding refers to positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning.[1] These sets of circumstances represent significant challenges to the adaptive resources of the individual, and pose significant challenges to individuals’ way of understanding the world and their place in it.[1] Posttraumatic growth is not about returning to the same life as it was previously experienced before a period of traumatic suffering; but rather it is about undergoing significant ‘life-changing’ psychological shifts in thinking and relating to the world, that contribute to a personal process of change, that is deeply meaningful.[1] … The term was coined by psychologists Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the mid-nineties.[2] According to Tedeschi as many as 90 percent of survivors report at least one aspect of posttraumatic growth, such as a renewed appreciation for life.[3] Traditional psychology’s equivalent to thriving is resilience, which is reaching the previous level of functioning before a trauma, stressor, or challenge. The difference between resilience and thriving is the recovery point. Thriving goes above and beyond resilience. Thriving finds benefits within challenges.[4]”

I think this concept of “Posttraumatic thriving” is very positive and can help people who have experienced trauma feel hopeful about their lives and futures, and shift their perceptions of what their own potential is.

Although I can see how helpful the thought of posttraumatic thriving can be, it is a bit of a strange idea to me right now – I truly believe I would be thriving a lot more if I hadn’t experienced the traumas. I mean like 10x more, an entirely different life.

I have never personally experienced “thriving” as a result of trauma. Rather I experience trauma as an impediment to thriving. The word “thrive” has pretty much been eliminated from my vocabulary at this point to be honest.

But I’m open. I’ll keep looking for any “thriving” that seems to stem from some resiliency or realization or transformation that came out of trauma.

I do think the idea that I could improve my life to such a degree that I could actually “thrive” is a very helpful concept for me to ponder.

The Cost of Posttraumatic Growth

Posttraumatic growth, posttraumatic thriving – these are wonderful ideas but I just want to point out that, in the event you actually reach these in your own recovery, in any way you look at it they have come to you with a great, great cost. They are byproducts of being forced to face and overcome trauma, which is destructive to the overall personality and actual structures of self that allow functioning in the world and with others.

I personally think that trauma is not the ideal setup or life context for growth to occur. Trauma is one of the least healthy or ideal contexts for growth to occur.

Arguments could be made for specific cases in which trauma was the best context for growth at that time. For example, if a person was not growing in any other context, was becoming self-destructive or was in a destructive life situation and needed some kind of wake-up call.

Arguments could be made that there are certain things you can only learn through trauma. I don’t know what they would be or if this is true or not.

The Paradoxes

The Two “Paradoxes” of posttraumatic growth as I see them are:

  1. Most kinds of growth are accompanied by just as much or more weakness as a result of the trauma.
    For example, strength grows but alongside it there is more weakness than strength, courage develops a bit but there is overall more fearfulness experienced than courage. In other words, PTG appears to be part of a larger formula in which the net outcome is generally more negative than positive for a period of time. As healing of these weaknesses occurs, while the strengths are retained and built upon, it may become possible to slowly turn the tables and then eventually the net result would come out in the positive.
  2. The symptoms of PTS make PTG almost impossible to perceive and own.
    The processes required to perceive and internally own PTG are severely disrupted and can be prevented from occurring by symptoms of posttraumatic stress. PTS symptoms affect the nervous system, hormones, brain, cognition, access to higher mental functioning. They can hold one stuck in the past seemingly indefinitely. These symptoms directly prevent perception and ownership of goodness in general, so they must be overcome to some degree to begin to understand, see, experience, own and embody PTG.

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So, growth occurs.

It occurs within a context of tragedy.

People do possess real positive traits that they demonstrate and that become strengthened both under fire during the trauma and in the aftermath as they go through recovery. Posttraumatic growth is a result of these personal strengths and good choices in response to trauma.

These are real benefits despite the fact that they are rendered almost entirely invisible by the symptoms of PTSD potentially for many years.

Right after the traumatic events posttraumatic stress dominates. As the symptoms of PTSD diminish with treatment, the posttraumatic growth can come more to light little by little. Over time the tables can turn and Posttraumatic growth can come out in the lead in the end. There may be an experience of shift when the PTG is starting to show up and PTS symptoms reduce in intensity.

Over time as the brain heals and is able to use the higher parts of itself again, the parts that are able to make more complex connections between things, then more sophisticated ways of understanding growth and trauma can slowly be reached mentally leading to more positive changes, and possibly helping to heal the posttraumatic stress symptoms even further.

Posttraumatic growth is the theory that an individual can undergo positive psychological changes after trauma that lead to making them better than they were before the traumatic events – i.e., to experience posttraumatic thriving.

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This is the first article in a series of articles exploring Posttraumatic Growth.

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Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.