Almost seven years ago on the evening of May 22, 2011 the most devastating tornado in recorded history struck Joplin, Missouri with such force that people 17 miles away could hear the rumble. Trees were stripped of spring leaves, houses were leveled and the local high school was severely damaged. The EF-5 tornado tore a path through the heart of a town, destroying one third of the homes and businesses, killing 161 people and injuring many more (First et al, 2017). The effects of the tornado were felt through the entire community and the surrounding area. Once clean up began, people began talking about what it felt like to run down to their shelter just moments before their homes were hit—feeling the pressure drop and their ears pop.
Experiences like this are traumatic. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines trauma as “exposure to threatened death, severe injury, or sexual violence” (Grad & Zeligman, 2017). There are a myriad of examples of trauma. Each may vary in the details, but all can lead to post-traumatic stress or post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, depression, adjustment-disorders and substance abuse can also follow a traumatic event as people try to cope and deal with the changes in themselves and how they view or relate themselves to others (First et al, 2017).
Studies have shown that only a few people are resilient in the face of trauma. Resilience is the ability to bounce back and cope after a traumatic event (Collier, 2016). For many people, trauma shakes them to the very core. It challenges everything they believed and can damages their mental health to a point where they can’t bounce back.
It is estimated that one half to two thirds of people who experience trauma also experience post-traumatic growth (Collier, 2016). Post-traumatic growth (PTG) “is [a] positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event” (What is PTG?, 2013). In order to experience growth, a person must experience something that makes them question their core beliefs and makes them struggle through mental anguish. The stress pushes the person towards growth. Only then can growth occur (Collier, 2016).
Post-traumatic growth occurs in at least one of five distinct categories. In the first category people find new opportunities because of the traumatic event. The second sees growth in relationships with other people. Third, people gain a stronger sense of strength. They gain the attitudes that if they can handle the traumatic event, they can handle other difficult things. In the fourth area, people find greater appreciation for life. The last area that can see growth is in people’s spiritual lives. There may be a deepening of existing beliefs or the growth may come from a change in beliefs (What is PTG?, 2013).
Studies on PTG have shown that looking for benefits five weeks after a traumatic event could lead to fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms three years after the disaster, suggesting that “initial PTG might play a positive or protective role in reducing [post-traumatic stress symptoms] for disaster survivors in the long term” (First et al, 2017). It has also been noted that deliberate rumination of the event is a positive indicator of post-traumatic growth (First et al, 2017).
Those who are more open to experiences are more likely to find growth after trauma because they are more willing to question beliefs (Collier, 2016). Extroverted people are also more likely to experience growth because of their natural tendency to connect with others (Collier, 2016). Age plays a role in who sees growth. Youth and young adults seem to be at a prime spot for experiencing growth. They are at a time in their lives when worldviews and beliefs are forming. Children younger than eight are less likely to see PTG because they lack the cognitive abilities needed to process the experience (Collier, 2016).
Researchers surveyed survivors of the Joplin tornado two and a half years after it struck with the goal of determining whether post-traumatic growth had occurred. They found that women showed more signs of PTG than men, which is consistent with the findings of other studies (First et al, 2017). They also found that “engaging in more family, friend and neighbor discussions about the tornado was associated with more PTG” (First et al, 2017). These results may indicate that people need to talk about traumatic events in order to come to terms with them.
It should be noted that though trauma can lead to growth, it does not decrease the reality of the pain endured nor does it mean that trauma is good, but the fact that a person can learn how to turn their trauma into something positive may offer hope to some (What is PTG?. 2013). In a way, it is an extreme form of the adage: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Collier, L. (2016, Nov). Growth after trauma. Monitor on Psychology, Retrieved from http://www.apa.org.byui.idm.oclc.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma.aspx
First, J., First, N., Stevens, J., Mieseler, V., & Houston, J. B. (2017). Post-traumatic growth 2.5 years after the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado. Journal of Family Social Work.
Grad, R. I., & Zeligman, M. (2017). Predictors of post-traumatic growth: The role of social interest and meaning in life. Journal of Individual Psychology, 73(3), 190-207. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.byui.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=125428967&site=ehost-live
What is PTG? (2013, -01-16). Retrieved from https://ptgi.uncc.edu/what-is-ptg/