Origins of PTG

PTG is Older than you Might Think

February 16, 2020
Transformed by Trauma: Independently Published by Boulder Crest Foundation

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” – Romans 5:3-5

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The theory of posttraumatic growth has been studied for over three decades. But saying that Drs. Tedeschi and Calhoun “discovered” posttraumatic growth is a little like saying Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. Sure, Columbus was the first to bring a large expedition of sailors to the Americas and then share his experiences with Europe. But, in reality, this part of the world was already inhabited by Native Americans. You can’t really discover something that’s already been discovered.

The same is true for posttraumatic growth: it has been around since the beginning of human existence. However, with the coining of the term posttraumatic growth, psychologists developed and explored the various aspects of the concept and placed it within a psychological framework. Still, some of the best examples of posttraumatic growth are found in the world’s religions and philosophy.

Religion and Posttraumatic Growth

The concept of posttraumatic growth is found in all of the world’s major religions. Many examples of the struggle with trauma and resulting growth can be found specifically in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam. The connection between religion and posttraumatic growth is more than just academic. In fact, religion can play an important role when it comes to experiencing growth.

A number of studies have shown that religious and spiritual beliefs influence posttraumatic growth in a number of ways.

For example, those individuals who are more involved in religion (go to worship services, pray regularly) are more likely to report growth following trauma than those who are not. Research has also shown that the degree to which a person holds religious convictions predicts the degree of future growth following difficult experiences. Does this mean that if you rarely step foot inside a church, synagogue, or mosque that you are less likely to thrive after trauma? No, not at all. Some studies show that being open-minded about religious change is more important than actually being involved with a particular religion. The bottom line is that religion, spiritual beliefs, and openness to religious change can be important when it comes to posttraumatic growth.

Religion can also act as a catalyst for posttraumatic growth. As we mentioned earlier, trauma shatters our core beliefs. It causes us to question everything that we thought we knew before the event. This challenge to our beliefs is what sets the stage for growth. Religious beliefs can be one set of core beliefs that are uprooted. And the psychological distress that follows this disruption forces one to develop new beliefs, which is the precursor to growth.

A related concept is “moral injury.” Moral injury is a way to understand the shame, guilt, anxiety, and sadness that may result from engaging in a behavior that goes against deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. A good example is the turmoil a soldier may experience after intentionally or unintentionally harming or killing someone in combat. The act of harm to another may conflict with an individual’s-deeply held religious or spiritual beliefs or their cultural orgroup norms. However, the resulting emotional turmoil following the aftermath of the act can also be a catalyst for growth down the road. In our experience, in cases of moral injury, we have seen tremendous positive shifts in religious and spiritual beliefs.

Another connection between religion and posttraumatic growth is when religion is viewed as the outcome. In other words, the struggle with a difficult life experience leads the person to a new religious or spiritual connection. Over the years, we’ve seen many people who identified as atheist or agnostic go on to develop deeply-held spiritual beliefs and practices.

Religious beliefs can provide a way to make sense of trauma. They help some put the most horrific experiences imaginable within a larger context that offers hope and meaning.

For example, a person with strong religious convictions may tell themselves “God is testing me to see if I am strong enough in my faith” or “If I go to God and ask for his grace, I will be able to get through this.” In situations like this, God acts as the deepest and most profound social support one can rely on.

Christianity and Posttraumatic Growth

Roughly nine out of ten people in the world identify with a particular religion. Although Islam is expected to become the world’s largest religion sometime this century, Christianity remains the largest with over two billion followers. The beliefs and practices within Christianity vary amongst its approximately 30,000 denominations. But they all share the same basic tenet that Jesus died for the sins of humanity.

The crucifixion of Jesus may be the most well-known example of growth and promise after trauma. Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice transformed a people during his time and offered strength and purpose for billions who followed. His death was a catalyst for change. And it was a dramatic reminder that from death and despair, there can be forgiveness, hope, and love. This is exemplified by John 16:20: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.”

Stories of suffering are plentiful in the Old and New Testament. The trials and tribulations of Abraham, Joseph, Job, Peter, and many others are well-known in scholarly and lay religious circles. However, the Bible is also filled with promises of glory and riches in the afterlife for those who struggle with their imperfections and face their fears while on earth. Their suffering is not meaningless, but rather a consequence of sin and disconnection from God. Faith and service to others are the remedies and these struggles can lead to spiritual growth.

Buddhism and Posttraumatic Growth

Buddhism embraces the concept that life is full of suffering and that human desire is the cause of this suffering. Therefore, the only way to avoid suffering and to find peace is to let go of connections to things that create desire (e.g.wealth, perfection, happiness). Buddhists do not encourage the search for growth because this search would be another desire that contributes to their distress. Instead, the focus is on achieving enlightenment through actions and meditation. Although not called posttraumatic growth, this process shares many of the same tenets.

A good example of the connection between posttraumatic growth and Buddhism is the well-known story of a young woman named Kisa Gotami. Gotami was experiencing immense grief with the recent death of her child. She roamed her village with her dead child on her hip searching for medicine that would bring her son back to life.

Recognizing the grief and irrational behavior of the woman, a village elder told her to seek counsel from Buddha. She did, and he offered to help. Buddha told the grieving mother to go find mustard seeds from a home in the village. These mustard seeds would restore her child. However, Buddha added a caveat: the seeds must come from a home where there had been no death. Gotami went from house to house searching for the mustard seeds. Although she could find many seeds, she could not find a home in which a family had not lost a loved one.

Gotami eventually came to the realization that Buddha had not sent her to find seeds, but rather to learn that she was not alone in her suffering.

She now understood that death and suffering were universal and that her loss was no different from the loss of others. Gotami’s enlightenment allowed her to bury her child and ascend to a higher level of awareness and compassion in her life. An interesting aspect of this story noted by Tedeschi and colleagues in their recent book Posttraumatic Growth: Theory, Research, and Applications is that Gotami;s growth would have not been possible if it wasn’t for her tragedy. It is important to note that Gotami was not seeking enlightenment; rather, she wanted help with her grief. In posttraumatic growth, it’s the actual struggle with suffering that’s transformative and not the trauma itself.

Judaism and Posttraumatic Growth

The Torah, often referred to by Christians as the Old Testament or the first five books of the Bible, provides the foundation for all Jewish laws and practices. Like the stories of the books within the New Testament, the Torah is rich with accounts of incredible suffering that eventually lead to growth. The story of Job is a story of a man who loses everything – his money, health, and even his family. By putting his faith in God, and avoiding the seduction of bitterness and hatred, he regained what he had lost and died an old and happy man. One only needs a basic familiarity of the Bible to appreciate all that Moses gave up to help free the Israelites. Without question, his suffering was not in vain and resulted in immeasurable growth for himself and his people.

Islam and Posttraumatic Growth

Islam is on track to surpass Christianity in becoming the largest world religion sometime within the next 50 years. Muslims, those who adhere to Islamic principles, are exposed to countless stories of hardship throughout Islamic teachings. In fact, a major tenet of Islam is that a follower’s faith becomes stronger through difficult experiences and the resulting struggle, also a major tenet of posttraumatic growth. This aspect of Islam is aptly conveyed by specific quotations, including: “If Allah [God] wants to do good to somebody, He afflicts him with trials” (Sahih al-Bukhari 5645) and from the Quran (94:5-6)“Verily, after hardship there will come ease. After hardship, there will come ease.” Islam teaches that every person is judged by his trials. To waste a struggle is to waste an opportunity to become closer to Allah.

The most notable story of growth following adversity comes directly from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, a prophet and God’s messenger who founded Islam. Muhammad suffered the unfortunate fate of losing his beloved wife and uncle in the same year. Awareness of his suffering became so widely known that this year was dedicated as “the year of sorrow” in Islamic history. The deaths of those close to him, combined with other hardships, led Muhammad on a spiritual journey. This journey, an event precipitated by multiple traumatic experiences and his struggle with those experiences, resulted in a deeper connection to God. In Islamic tradition, it is noted that during this journey Allah gave Muhammad a special gift – the prayer that Muslims engage in five times a day. It is this prayer that provides Muslims a direct connection to God.

Philsophy and Posttraumatic Growth

The primary goal of the traditional mental health system is to alleviate suffering. The way this is measured is through the reduction of symptoms (e.g. depression, panic, insomnia, hopelessness). Mental health professionals have a variety of therapies at their disposal which include psychotherapy and medication.

The assumption is that if the treatment is effective, the person will go on to live a better life. But, is the alleviation of suffering an appropriate goal after someone has experienced a traumatic event? Or, does classifying a person’s post-trauma emotional experiences as pathological lessen his or her chances to become stronger and wiser because of them? Considering that many traditions see suffering as a part of life that should be embraced, the latter question is a reasonable one. It’s also a philosophical one.

The concept of posttraumatic growth is deeply rooted in philosophy.

The most prominent philosopher connected to posttraumatic growth is the 19th-century German, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s famous quote “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” is the most frequently cited one-liner when it comes to talking about psychological toughness and growth. However, it’s the paradox of how strength comes from pain or how growth comes from struggle that makes his quote most relevant to posttraumatic growth.

Nietzsche believed that people change the way they view the world and their place in it after experiencing a difficult life event. As a result, they make a philosophical shift from their old way of looking at things to a new way of understanding their existence. Here, it is also important to recognize that the event itself does not make a person stronger. It is what happens and what a person does in the aftermath of the event that makes the difference.

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, holocaust survivor, and philosopher, expanded on Nietzsche’s ideas. Frankl experienced incredible hardships and endured years of suffering as a prisoner in Nazi Germany. And although he shared many insights as a result of his experiences, the most important one is that a person can find meaning in even the most horrific of circumstances. This meaning is a byproduct of how one views one’s situation, self, and the future.

Final Thoughts

Indeed, there is a deep connection between religion, philosophy, and posttraumatic growth. Following life difficulties, religion, spirituality, and philosophy provide a framework for people to make sense of the world and their place within it.

They function as the scaffolding upon which those who are struggling can find understanding, purpose, and meaning. However, at times, the connections may not be immediately apparent. Following the aftermath of a traumatic event, people often find themselves asking philosophical questions. Modern-day science can teach us about complex models, developmental trajectories, and multi-faceted predictive equations related to growth. But, to truly see the possibilities, one can look to the world's religions and philosophers.

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