Post-traumatic growth is a phenomenon by which people suffered by past events surpass themselves. The general understanding that suffering can be possible sources of positive change is very old. For example, Nietzsche remarked, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
In the aftermath of major life struggles, where fundamental assumptions are seriously confronted, can lead to positive psychological change or post-traumatic growth. However, the change is not simply a return to baseline. But, it is an experience of deeply profound improvement. Such people don’t come out healed. They emerge better than they used to be.
The terms post-traumatic growth is not the same as resilience. Resilience is usually considered to be an ability to go on with life after hardship and adversity. Post-traumatic growth occurs with the attempt to adjust to highly negative experiences that can produce high levels of psychological distress. The growth normally requires a significant change in the fundamental assumptions (attitudes). The experience has a quality of a paradigm shift (transformation in functioning).
Examples of positive psychological change include an increased appreciation of life, a significant changed sense of priority, a greater sense of personal strength, and recognition of new possibilities. Things that used to be big deals are not big deals anymore. The experience changes the persons’ self-concept and gives them confidence (self-respect) to face new challenges (e.g., if I can endure this I can handle anything.). For example, in the situation where people are more limited in what choices they have, such as becoming unemployed and having limited budget, they may be willing to explore opportunities never before considered.
The experience of growth is facilitated by certain personal qualities such as openness to experience and optimism. These qualities may help individuals to focus attentions and resources on the most important matters and give up unsolvable problems.
Psychologists note that despair is a prerequisite to the birth of joy. It is well known that AA states that the alcoholic cannot be cured until he or she is in complete despair. It is only then that the alcoholic can give up the need for alcohol as a relief for his or her hopelessness. When a person has “hit bottom” he then can begin to rebuild himself.
In his book, Antifragile, Nassim Taleb (2012) writes, “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skills. Our antagonist is our helper (P39).” It is said that the best horses lose when they compete with slower ones. Similarly, human body can benefit from stressors (to get stronger) but only to a point. For instance, our bones will become denser when episodic stress is applied to them. We increase our willpower capacity the more we practice in dealing with setbacks.
This explains why overprotective parents trying to help their children are often hurting them the most. Experiences of stressors and risks make them adapt and change continuously by learning from the environment. Making many small mistakes provide valuable information. Failure is a fantastic learning opportunity.
Thus, we can view any emotional pain life inflict on us as an opportunity that will strengthen our ability to better deal with any future pain. So bearing the pain will seem like an achievement. No pain, no gain. However, when we medicate away our suffering we miss the opportunity to grow. It is not the suffering itself that makes all the difference, but the way it is experienced.