John Walsh, host of “America’s Most Wanted,” will always be one of my heroes. His son, Adam, was abducted from a department store in 1981 and later found murdered.
Despite his grief, John has since dedicated his life to victims’ rights and the capture of fugitives. He turned an unspeakable tragedy into a powerful mission.
John and I have hosted television programs together focused on helping trauma victims, especially related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In my work with Catholic Charities, I have listened to the stories recounted by children and adult refugees—presently part of the Migration, Refugee, and Immigration Services program—who were forced to leave their countries due to warfare, national disaster, or political or religious persecution. Some children disclosed having been raped and tortured or witnessing their family members tortured and killed. However, these children also expressed a strong determination to succeed in order to honor their families. Likewise, events such as the tragic shooting of 26 at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon showed a determination of those affected to come away stronger from their ordeal. Both the refugees and the victims of these tragedies portray the strength of the human spirit. This strength is known as resilience.
The experiences cited make the trauma that I have experienced in my life pale in comparison. Anyone who has experienced post-traumatic stress knows the pain and struggle that accompany it. The numerous symptoms include disturbing memories, the avoidance of reminders of the trauma, irritability, insomnia, fear, and the restrictions that it often places on routine activities. However, very often, there is a personal growth after experiencing post-traumatic stress. Overwhelming evidence shows that people who experience trauma often build faith and courage that helps them grow stronger and more resilient.
These positive changes are known as post-traumatic growth (PTG). PTG enables movement beyond the pain and helps people find joy in life again. This phenomenon seems to support the oft-quoted expression, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” It is important to note that this change for the better does not take place overnight. PTG is an ongoing process. Usually, it occurs over time and includes the support of family, friends, and/or a therapist and the necessary resources.
Post-traumatic growth does not suggest that there is an absence of suffering as wisdom and strength builds, but rather that growth can occur within the context of pain and loss. Survivors of trauma and psychological distress inevitably confront existential questions about the meaning of life and the reason for the trauma. Confronting these questions and realizing a potential for growth comes not from the event itself but from the struggle to make sense of it. The struggle may actually be crucial for PTG to occur. In trying to make sense of their struggle, individuals often realize the need to pull themselves out of their emotional quicksand and move forward.
Those who have gone through a severe trauma often become more open and flexible, and may branch out and tackle activities that were once quite stressful. Additionally, many who begin to experience PTG often discover a new sense of spirituality. They may have a new appreciation for life and find new possibilities for themselves. Sometimes, recovering from trauma causes people to be less materialistic, more patient, more grateful, and even more compassionate. Those who gain strength from the experience of working through their trauma often find that that strength can help them improve their own relationships. The benefits of PTG can extend beyond the individual and help the family and community.
As previously mentioned, help and support from various sources may be needed to experience this positive growth. Sometimes, however, people fear the stigma associated with receiving psychological health care. There is a definite need to break down imagined barriers to seeking help. Reaching out is not a sign of weakness, but rather another sign of strength.
Darlene Powell Garlington, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, certified school psychologist, and media psychologist who specializes in providing services to those in the military. She is a senior policy analyst at Altarum Institute, consulting with the Defense Centers of Excellence and the author of eight books on a range of topics including parenting, psychology, and spirituality. This blog was adapted from a blog that she originally wrote for Military Pathways, Military Mental Health.