Post-Traumatic Growth: Can We Find Meaning After Pain?

February 2, 2024   •  Posted in: 

If you’ve been through something traumatic, you already know how painful it is. After a traumatic event, most people feel terrified and even paralyzed. You might have experienced feelings like despair and helplessness. Trauma survivors often feel their sense of trust in the world is shattered, and they will never be the same.

Many of us have experienced trauma at some point in our lives. And while these feelings of terror and insecurity are completely valid, experts say there’s also a way to move through these emotions to the other side.

Waiting for us on the other side is called post-traumatic growth. This describes what happens when people heal from trauma and not only return to their pre-trauma baseline but grow in ways previously unimaginable.

You can heal and grow from trauma, but it’s also important not to rush yourself or invalidate your experiences.

Here is helpful information about the nuances of post-traumatic growth and how you can use this information to heal from trauma.

What is post-traumatic growth?

Post-traumatic growth, or PTG, describes any sort of growth or positive change that comes after, or as a result of, trauma. You may have heard the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Although this is a simplification that takes out the complex nuance of post-traumatic growth, it holds some truth.

Post-traumatic growth isn’t just about surviving or resilience. Resilience refers to people’s ability to “bounce back” after a traumatic experience. In post-traumatic growth, people go through transformative changes. When trauma has shattered their world, they find a way to use the experience to grow rather than simply return to baseline[1].

A common example of post-traumatic growth is the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). These mothers have survived the horrifying trauma of losing children in violent accidents. They have taken this unimaginable pain and used it to benefit society.

Other examples of post-traumatic growth are:

  • Someone who experiences deeper relationships after the trauma because they now understand they can count on others during hard times.
  • An individual who experienced a life-altering accident or injury becomes an adaptive athlete.
  • A childhood sexual abuse survivor who grows up to become an attorney fighting for children’s rights.
  • A soldier who faced the trauma of war and, upon returning home, dedicated their life to advocating for the mental health and well-being of fellow veterans.
  • A domestic violence survivor has greater confidence in their strength and abilities after leaving the abusive relationship.
  • Someone who creates art, like music or paintings, about the trauma they experienced.
  • A trauma survivor who has allowed the experience to make them less judgmental and more empathetic toward the plights of others.
  • Someone who found God after trauma and has used the experience to strengthen their faith.
  • Someone has a newfound appreciation for life after surviving a serious car accident.
  • A trauma survivor who has decided to dedicate the rest of their life to living happily instead of worrying about what others think of them.

Post-traumatic growth is very common, with some studies finding that up to 70% of people who’ve been through trauma experience it[2].

Characteristics of post-traumatic growth

According to the post-traumatic growth theory, there are 5 main areas in which trauma survivors report experiencing growth[3].

Appreciation of life

People who go through post-traumatic growth have a newfound appreciation for life. You might go through each day with more gratitude or better understand the value of your life and others.

Relating to others

The trauma may have clarified who is truly supportive and present in times of need. If you’ve survived trauma, the people who were there for you during that time could have a newfound importance in your life. Trauma can also make us more empathetic and compassionate.

Personal strength

Surviving trauma can make us feel more confident in our ability to deal with hard things. You might feel like you’ve already survived the worst (giving you the confidence to deal with whatever life throws at you in the future); perhaps you realize you’re stronger than you thought.

New possibilities

People often realize what’s truly important to them after trauma. This may lead you to choose new paths or prioritize different things. You might be less scared of change when you realize things aren’t working for you.

Spiritual, existential, or philosophical change

Many people feel stronger with God or their spirituality after surviving trauma. Trauma can cause increased self-reflection and may help to clarify beliefs.

Is post-traumatic growth possible for everyone?

Experts say anyone can get to post-traumatic growth with the right support. But often in the media, the idea of post-traumatic growth is portrayed as an idealized “solution” for everyone who has been through trauma.

It’s important to understand this is not the case. Post-traumatic growth doesn’t take away from how painful and terrifying the trauma is. Putting too much emphasis on post-traumatic growth can often put added pressure on survivors at a time when they may feel they’re barely hanging on.

Post-traumatic growth isn’t just about “focusing on the positive.” It’s something that comes with time, healing, and patience.

Try to see post-traumatic growth as a journey, not a destination. Often, significant healing needs to take place before you can even think about using the trauma to find more meaning in life.

But when you’re ready, here are some ways to start that journey.

Educate yourself

Trauma is confusing and isolating, and when you’re in that headspace, it’s difficult to think about how to find meaning after these horrifying experiences. So one of the first steps is to learn about trauma and its effects. Understanding how trauma affects your nervous system can go a long way in helping you to stop the cycle of shame.

In addition, it may be helpful to learn about post-traumatic growth. For example, you may want to read the stories of other people who have gone through similar experiences. How did they start to find meaning again?

Tell your story

Narrative therapy techniques help you understand and rewrite your life story so far. It could be a single traumatic event that has disrupted your life’s “story.” Or you might feel chronic trauma has defined your story so far.

But you are the one who gets to decide what you want your story to be. You can rewrite your story to make you feel your life has been meaningful.

How does the trauma fit into that story? This can help you start reflecting on the impacts of the trauma and how to create meaning from it moving forward. What has changed since you went through trauma? How are you different now? What new paths, if any, have emerged for you since then?

Be of service

Often, post-traumatic growth comes from using traumatic experiences to be of service. This can help people understand the difficult experiences they’ve been through were not in vain. How can the trauma you’ve experienced connect you with shared humanity? How can you be of service to other people who have experienced similar things?

Remember, this is simply one way many people find post-traumatic growth. Don’t pressure yourself to serve others if you must focus on yourself and your healing.

Get therapy

Although post-traumatic growth can occur naturally, working with a therapist can be a very helpful tool when you’re walking this path. A therapist can give you a safe and nonjudgmental place to explore what happened and how it’s affected you. In therapy, you can start to reflect on what traumatic experiences have meant for your story and how you can grow from them.

At The Center ● A Place of HOPE, we offer a unique trauma recovery program using our proven Whole Person Care method. We see and honor who you are beyond the trauma you’ve been through, and we’re committed to helping you find the best path forward. You are not your trauma, but there are ways to grow from what happened.

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Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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