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Positive psychology might seem too chipper to be of any use when things go wrong, but there’s a branch designed for these very moments: the science of resilience.
Trauma, loss, and stress are life’s constant companion. According to estimates, 75% of people experience some major trauma in their lifetime – the loss of a loved one, illness, divorce, natural disaster – and in any given year, 20% of us will. According to the American Institute of Stress, 33% of people were living with extreme stress in 2014, and nearly 48% of people felt their stress had increased over the past five years.
The history of post-traumatic growth
How do we respond to stress and trauma? It’s easy to assume that adversity will hurt us, and in some cases it does. But in the past 30+ years, we have been discovering that trauma can change us for the better. Researchers like Richard Tedeschi, Lawrence Calhoun, William Sledge, and Stephen Joseph have interviewed widows, people who became disabled, prisoners of war, and shipwreck survivors, and found that many of them report benefits from their trauma. In fact, they estimate that about half or more trauma survivors will see positive changes.
“Adversity, like the grit that creates the pearl, is often what propels people to become more true to themselves, take on new challenges, and view life from a wider perspective,” writes Stephen Joseph in What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth.
Joseph, for example, studied people who had survived the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987. Three years afterward, 46% of them reported that their life had changed for the worse – and 43% said it had changed for the better.
The trauma doesn’t even have to affect us directly to inspire change. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, for example, one study found that 58% of people reported benefits – among them, closer relationships and social ties, a stronger sense of religion, and more patriotism. Another study saw an uptick in virtues like gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, faith, and teamwork post-9/11. And you can see such benefits in these stories of post-cancer growth from Psychology Today:
The 5 types of post-traumatic growth
Through their research, including more than 600 personal interviews, Tedeschi and Calhoun identified the five main ways that people tend to grow following adversity:
1. More inner strength: Trauma survivors can become stronger and wiser after having overcome such an immense difficulty in life. They feel more competent and more determined to succeed; they know they can cope with whatever life throws their way.
2. More openness to new possibilities: Trauma shakes up our worldview, and those who follow its lead may find themselves discovering new paths, new goals, and new purpose in life.
3. Stronger relationships: After going through such a harrowing experience, we can start to appreciate the good things in our life more – including relationships. We may also develop a more benevolent view of others and extend them more understanding, tolerance, empathy, and compassion. Adversity may push us to devote more time to our relationships and make new ones, as well.
4. More appreciation for life: Trauma can teach us how precious life is, and jolt us into not taking it for granted. We may start to see each day as a gift, to savor everyday moments and pleasures that we hadn’t noticed before. We may become more mindful and present, living each day as if it were our last and not worrying so much about the future. Like luggage in a turbulent airplane, our priorities may shift and we may land with a new sense of what’s important in life.
“Those who survive traumatic experiences have, by definition, survived. And given that they came so close to death, that they lost so many things they once took for granted, they understand on a much deeper level, in a much more informed way, what it means to be alive,” writes Jim Rendon in Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth.
5. Stronger spirituality: Trauma survivors who come to terms with what happened may find themselves with strengthened spirituality or a closer connection to God.
For these kinds of growth to happen, the trauma has to be serious enough to jumble up our prior beliefs and assumptions about the world. It’s impossible to keep living as we were before, and growth arises as we try to find a new way forward.
“After such an experience, people cannot avoid the realization that life is inherently uncertain, unpredictable, and uncontrollable – and that human beings are vulnerable and fragile. This realization may be the essence of post-traumatic growth in all of its forms,” writes Joseph.
While serious, the trauma also can’t be completely debilitating – researchers find that moderate trauma (whatever that means!) tends to produce the most growth. But moderate is relative: what’s traumatizing to one person may not be traumatizing to another. The process of pain and growth is a very personal one.
In this video, UNC Charlotte professor Tedeschi – one of the pioneers of post-traumatic growth theory along with Calhoun – explains the five common areas of growth and how relationships with other people can help us find meaning in adversity:
Post-traumatic growth and post-traumatic stress
After trauma, 8-12% of people experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the extreme form of post-traumatic stress. PTSD is a form of anxiety, and sufferers often have unwanted flashbacks, feel jumpy and nervous, and avoid any reminders of the event. For profound trauma, the number affected jumps to 20-25%.
You might assume that post-traumatic growth is the opposite of post-traumatic stress, and in some ways it is. But researchers are discovering a new conception of post-traumatic stress: as the beginning of the growth process.
In a 2014 review of studies, researchers found that more stress following a trauma was associated with more post-traumatic growth. Here again, moderation is ideal: those with moderate levels of post-traumatic stress – not quite severe enough to classify as PTSD – tend to grow the most. The thinking is that we need significant stress to spur us to transform our lives, but too much can be overwhelming.
“The drive to revisit, remember, and think about the trauma is a normal urge to make sense of a shocking experience, to grasp new realities and incorporate them into one’s own life story,” writes Joseph in What Doesn’t Kill Us. In a sense, the troubling memories, rumination, and nightmares can be our mind’s way of processing what happened.
If post-traumatic stress can lead to post-traumatic growth, that’s a radical message: some stress is good (or if not good, then at least natural). That’s the same message that we’re beginning to hear from researchers on stress, including health psychologist Kelly McGonigal.
After spending a decade spreading the view that stress is a toxic killer, McGonigal has changed her tune. Now, her goal is to convince you that stress can give you energy, strengthen your relationships, and help you learn – particularly if you see it as positive.
“[Being good at stress] is not about being untouched by adversity or unruffled by difficulties. It’s about allowing stress to awaken in you those core human strengths of courage, connection, and growth,” McGonigal writes in The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.
At the core of her new viewpoint is a profound truth: stress only arises when something we care about is at stake. Think about the major stressors in life: work, family, health. If we want to eliminate stress – the typical advice – we’d basically have to stop caring about the things that matter. And that doesn’t make any sense at all.
But isn’t stress still damaging our hearts and making us age faster? Well, it turns out that the biology of stress is a bit more complicated than the news headlines would lead us to believe. In her book The Upside of Stress, McGonigal explains three different biological processes – besides fight-or-flight – that can occur in the face of stress:
1. The challenge response. The challenge response features the same surge of adrenaline and cortisol as the fight-or-flight response, but to a lesser degree. Our heart pumps blood faster and delivers more oxygen to our muscles, so we are physically stronger and can see and hear better. The rush of endorphins, testosterone, and dopamine motivates us to take action, and we feel confident, focused, powerful, and energized. Studies have shown that people experiencing a challenge response do better when negotiating, taking an exam, playing sports, or performing surgery – even if they are feeling stressed. We’re more likely to have a challenge response when the situation is difficult but we still feel we can handle it.
2. The tend-and-befriend response. Another way our bodies respond to stress is with a “tend-and-befriend” response, which pushes us to move toward others and find solace in connection. Believe it or not, the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin is actually triggered by stress, and it drives us to be more empathic, trusting, and connected to others. Along with dopamine, oxytocin quiets our fears and makes us more courageous, and it actually helps repair heart cells. (Yes, indeed: a hormone released under stress is good for the heart.) The release of serotonin helps us become more perceptive and intuitive, so we choose the right course of action. This response explains the heroic deeds that parents are capable of when their children are in danger – deeds that may put their own lives at risk – and why people who are suffering often reach out to help others.
3. Learning during stress recovery. After a stressful experience, it takes a while for our bodies to quiet down, and this is deliberate on nature’s part. The release of cortisol and oxytocin continues during this stage, acting to reduce inflammation. The neurosteroid DHEA is released in order to help our brains grow and learn from the experience and to speed up wound healing and immune function in case the stressor was of the skin-tearing kind. Our brains may be drawn to ruminate on the stressful experience, but all these processes happen with the goal of helping us better deal with similar stressors later.
Still not convinced that stress can be good? Watch McGonigal’s TED talk:
The growth following trauma and stress may not necessarily involve bouts of joy, laughter, and dancing. But we can come away with a deeper sense of meaning and appreciation, a quieter kind of happiness. Hardship is inevitable in life, but we aren’t doomed to be broken by it.
Sources and further reading
- Stephen Joseph, What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth
- Jim Rendon, Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth
- Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It
- Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles