Recently, mass killings have been front and center in the news. The terrorist attacks in Paris struck a chord worldwide, and similar attacks in Beirut, Baghdad, Mali, Lake Chad, and elsewhere have made the horror seem never-ending. Yesterday marked the three-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting and two weeks ago another shooting in San Bernardino topped a long list of harrowing incidents in the United States. While the political discourse focuses on how to prevent future tragedies from happening, survivors and the families and friends of victims are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
Their grief is acute and can lead to many downstream consequences, not least of all post-traumatic stress. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and depression, which can persist for a long time, as in the story of a teenage Syrian refugee who carried the blown-up body parts of his mother and sister out of their demolished house. Two years later, he is still tormented by the experience.
Even if we have not endured post-traumatic stress, we are all familiar with hardship. Some people go through poverty or abuse. Others withstand bullying, breakups, or illness. Suffering is universal, albeit manifested in different ways and to different extents.
As we cope with struggles in our own lives and witness other people’s struggles unfold in the news, a common response is to search for an underlying significance that might make our devastation more bearable. This process of making meaning out of misery can be beneficial. For example, cancer patients who derive meaning from their medical experiences have greater psychological adjustment. Likewise, following the death of a family member, people who make sense of their loss and even find benefits in it experience less distress. The psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote extensively about this process after observing that his fellow inmates in concentration camps were more likely to survive the horrific conditions if they held on to a sense of meaning.
To understand how this process is possible, researchers have studied a fascinating phenomenon called post-traumatic growth. First identified in the mid-nineties by the psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, post-traumatic growth is when a person experiences positive changes resulting from a major life crisis. According to the research, post-traumatic growth goes beyond resilience; by actively searching for good in something terrible, a person can use adversity as a catalyst for advancing to a higher level of psychological functioning. Survivors of sexual assault report post-traumatic growth as early as two weeks later, but the timeline and nature of growth varies from person to person.
Five positive changes signal post-traumatic growth and provide a useful framework for how to make the best out of the worst situations. The first is personal strength. Tragedy exposes our vulnerability in an unpredictable world and therefore may cause us to feel weak or helpless. But, paradoxically, it can also boost our self-confidence and lead us to view ourselves as stronger. For instance, a car crash survivor reported that the incident motivated her to take charge of her life with greater determination and willpower. People may feel empowered by realizing that overcoming a past challenge means they will be able to overcome future challenges.
The second is relationships. Whether bonding on a deeper level with friends and family or feeling connected to strangers who have gone through similar difficulties, suffering can bring people closer together. Social support is especially important for healing; discussing and processing hardships with other people assists with meaning-making. For instance, women emerging from intimate partner violence undergo more growth if they discuss their abuse with a role model. Suffering may also prompt us to be more compassionate toward others: A recent study out of Yale and MIT showed that survivors of violence felt more empathy for Liberian refugees and therefore acted more altruistically, such as by hosting the refugees in their homes.
The third way to grow from trauma is through greater life appreciation. Tragedy can shift our perspective, inspire us to value good things more, and renew our intention to make the most of our lives. One approach to focusing on gratitude is to sit down once a week and write a list of things for which you are grateful from the week prior. Researchers found that this exercise was linked to higher life satisfaction, more optimism, and fewer health complaints. Another strategy is to savor and fully enjoy the things that bring us joy, such as a hot mug of coffee, the sunset, or spending time with a friend.
The fourth is beliefs, which may change or be reinforced as a result of grief. As researchers explain, people may evolve existentially to see themselves and their role in the world differently or to feel a new spiritual connection, which can influence their sense of purpose or their faith, respectively. For instance, religious parents whose child is diagnosed with cancer might understand their struggle as God’s will, consistent with their previous beliefs. Conversely, they may question whether God exists at all, thereby challenging their previous beliefs. Research suggests that individuals benefit from attempting to reconstruct or reaffirm their sense of meaning in this way.
Lastly, the fifth positive change is new possibilities. In the aftermath of trauma, people may perceive that new opportunities are available and pursue them. Consider a man who gets fired, feels ashamed and depressed, but soon after starts working on what he is truly passionate about, which wasn’t possible at his former job. One method of identifying new possibilities is to envision your ideal life in the future and strategize about bringing that vision to fruition. A study showed that people felt significantly happier after spending twenty minutes each day for four days writing about their imagined best possible selves or planning their goals. Plus, this activity can increase optimism.
By focusing on one or more of these five areas, we have an opportunity to turn suffering into personal development. In particular, several factors can facilitate this process. One is receiving care; it is important to seek out emotional and practical support from loved ones or community members following trauma. Another is approaching rather than avoiding the task of coping by accepting the tragedy as irreversible and embracing the grief process. A final factor is recognizing that we are in charge of how we move forward, and thereby perceiving control over our recovery.
Of course, the fact of post-traumatic growth does not imply that trauma is good or that suffering should be belittled. Survivors of the recent terrorist attacks and the families and friends of victims likely incurred psychological damage and are no doubt experiencing immense pain and sorrow. Fortunately, distress and post-traumatic growth can and often do occur simultaneously. In fact, the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson determined that people with optimal mental health maintain a three-to-one ratio of positive-to-negative emotions, indicating that suffering actually plays a role in our overall well-being.
No one is exempt from suffering, yet we can thrive and flourish despite it—and, in some cases, because of it. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, researchers observed that kindness, gratitude, teamwork, and other virtues increased among American citizens. We have seen this phenomenon continually throughout history; the recent crises are no exception. Trauma drives change, and that change can be positive. Post-traumatic growth points to ways in which we can use our struggles—as individuals or a nation—as springboards for greater meaning and transformation.