Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 30, No. 3

October 13, 2005


Some dark clouds do have a silver lining

Trauma can lead to emotional growth: psychologist


Even the worst of life’s disasters carry seeds of hope, a leading researcher in post-traumatic stress and recovery said in a Concordia lecture on Sept. 29.

Richard Tedeschei, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said a trauma can be any difficult trial that interrupts or interferes with a person’s expectations about his or her life.

“Traumas change your life narrative, your assumptions about how your life is going to go.

“A trauma divides people’s lives; survivors tend to speak in terms of before and after the traumatic event.”

These events could include natural disasters, criminal attacks, a death in the family, or the mental illness of yourself or a loved one.

“There is a grieving process involved when someone in your family is mentally ill; people feel they lost the person they thought they knew.”

The good news is that the research of Tedeschei and others has found that two-thirds of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also eventually report a less known phenomenon: post-traumatic growth (PTG).

Transformative effect

“PTG is more than just bouncing back from life traumas; there is a transformative effect.” He listed five domains of PTG: improvement in personal relations, new horizons and possibilities, personal strength, spiritual change, and appreciation of life.

“For example, people experiencing PTG find that they are not concerned any more by trivial things, and they have a renewed focus on what is really important, like friends and family.”

He noted that the trauma itself is not the catalyst for this transformation. “It’s the struggle that changes you; first there is the struggle to survive, and later, the struggle to grow.”

Tedeschei noted that while some people who claim they have grown from traumatic experiences “may be fooling themselves,” the research data shows a clear-eyed, realistic view from the majority of survivors.

“They know that the trauma was not all good; they gained, but they also lost, and it’s still hard. PTG doesn’t wipe out the trauma.

“But a study of Bosnian war survivors showed that while they could talk openly about their terrible experiences, their emphasis was on growth. That’s what they took from the experience. “

Such reactions are universal: “Colleagues doing studies from around the world have found very similar results.”

Yet another hurdle

During the question-and-answer period, Tedeschei was asked about the one-third who don’t experience PTG. Aren’t they in bad shape?

“Not everyone grows from these kind of experiences, and that’s all right. I’m not trying to set up PTG as yet another hurdle for these people to jump. That last one-third may just be the more resilient people, who bounce back more quickly than most.”

He was also asked about the effects on couples when one partner falls ill, or when they lose a child.

Tedeschei said, “In general, couples tend to draw closer in these circumstances.

“There is a myth that says that when a couple loses a child, the marriage is in trouble; the data show it’s not true.”

Another audience member wondered why positive experiences don’t trigger the same kinds of growth.

Dig deep

“That’s because traumas shatter the assumptive world, your assumptions about the life you expected to lead.

“They make you dig deep and question yourself, to ask yourself who you are and where you’re going.”

Tedeschei’s talk was the Hans Low-Beer Memorial Lecture for 2005.

It was presented by AMI Quebec (Alliance for the Mentally Ill) with Concordia’s Department of Psychology.