A patient of mine looked at me wistfully.
“I’d like to have it all mean something,” she said.
“Mean something?” I repeated, puzzled.
“I wish that my illness had a purpose – that there was a reason for all this pain and the suffering and that my life will never be the same.”
I asked her if she had ever heard of “post-traumatic growth.” When she shook her head, I explained that researchers now believe that many people who have a catastrophic event or life changing trauma are not forever damaged. Many of them do exactly what my patient was longing to do – they begin to knit their new lives together, and create a sense of meaning for themselves. They choose to grow from what has occurred, not merely survive it.
The most well known researcher is Richard Tedeschi, who with a colleague Lawrence Calhoun, began to study this phenomenon at the university of North Carolina, Charlotte where they are psychologists and professors.
Jim Rendon writes in a recent New York Times article, “Post-Traumatic Stress’s Surprisingly Positive Flip Side,” that Richard Tedeschi:
explained the dynamics of post-traumatic growth. Only a seismicevent — not just an upsetting experience — can lead to this kind of growth. Bythat Tedeschi means an event that shakes you to your core and causes you toquestion your fundamental assumptions about the world. Survivors of such severe trauma inevitably confront questions about existence that most of us avoid, and the potential for growth comes not from the event itself but from the struggle to make sense of it. Tedeschi calls this rumination, and he argues that it can happen alongside P.T.S.D., after P.T.S.D. or in its absence. “The challenge isto see the opportunities presented by this earthquake,” Tedeschi says. “Don’tjust rebuild the same crappy building you had before. Why not build somethingbetter?”
Why not indeed?
I suggested to my patient that she take a quick survey about post-traumatic growth offered on the American Psychological Association website. You can take it also by visiting: http://cust-cf.apa.org/ptgi/
This survey is a quick outline of the factors that go into the positive changes that are part of post-traumatic growth: finding new possibilities for your life, a deepened appreciation for life, personal strength, improved relationships, and more spiritual satisfaction.
Of course not everyone with a chronic illness develops this kind of growth. But it is more common than not. Even knowing there is a name, and some skills that can be worked on, offers hope.
Researchers now believe that many people who have a catastrophic event or life changing trauma are not forever damaged. Many of them do exactly what my patient was longing to do – they begin to knit their new lives together, and create a sense of meaning for themselves.
After hearing about post-traumatic growth, my patient decided to do some reading about the subject. We identified some role models who exemplified this kind of growth even as they lived with pain. We began to talk about the areas where she wanted to deepen and expand her life satisfaction. We moved beyond just getting through this diagnosis and its aftermath, to looking at the ways she wanted to live with a vibrant spirit.
I know you can follow this path. Start by trying the assessment and see where you score the highest. Then think about how you can make your high score even better. Find someone who can be on your team, and practice.
As always, let me know how it goes!