It is well known that trauma has many negative effects on children and adults, including PTSD, depression, medical conditions and substance abuse. An alternative perspective, however, is that trauma can result in positive outcomes.
Individuals can experience positive changes in the wake of traumatic events. The study of posttraumatic growth (PTG) reveals that many people increase in personal strength, appreciation of life, emotional intimacy with partners and family, creativity, sense of spirituality, and life possibilities following traumatic events. The factors that have been found to be associated with PTG and resilience are hope, sense of meaning and purpose, positive emotions, social support, acts of kindness, and internal locus of control.
Hope: Building hope is a key aspect of healing with traumatized children and adults. Hope is linked to better physical and psychological health, academic and work performance, and recovery from trauma. Traumatic experiences shatter one’s belief in a safe world and lead to a sense of a foreshortened future. Hope empowers and motivates people to believe in the possibility of a brighter future. Envisioning a future worth living is essential to recovery and growth.
Meaning and purpose: Trauma affects beliefs about self, the world, and the future, leading to negative mindsets (e.g., “It’s my fault; I’m helpless; people are bad”). Helping people make sense of traumatic events, and creating a sense of meaning and purpose, fosters resilience and PTG by increasing optimism, positive emotions, and self-esteem. Those who find meaning in traumatic events, such as the loss of a child, do better in their recovery than those who do not. People who tell a story reflecting their ability to overcome an adverse event, and discover positive results, are better adjusted.
Positive emotions: Positive emotions activate biochemical changes in the brain, flooding our brains with dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, neurotransmitters that stimulate the brain’s reward system and are associated with positive moods, motivation, pleasurable sensations, and enhanced cognitive abilities. Positive emotions are linked to resilience and PTG. People who experienced positive emotions before the 9/11 attacks recovered faster from trauma than their less positive counterparts . Optimism buffers against the negative effects of traumatic events because it fosters active problem solving and constructive action.
Social support: Social support, both received and perceived, increases resilience and PTG following trauma. Positive relationships provide a sense of connectedness, the opportunity to experience the healthful side of life, and reduce loneliness and feelings of worthlessness. Social support also connects people to available resources, such as therapists, physicians, and community services. New Yorkers with emotional support had fewer PTSD symptoms and faster recovery following the 9/11 attacks than others with less social support.
Acts of kindness: Giving support—not only receiving—is tied to resilience and PTG. Acts of altruism decrease stress and enhance mental health. Volunteering to help others has been found to increase self efficacy (“I can make a difference”), enhance self-worth, and heighten the sense of meaning and purpose.
Internal locus of control: Individuals with a strong sense of ownership over their fate are more resilient than those who view themselves as victims. People with an internal locus of control believe they have a hand in everything that happens to them, and are more apt to perceive trauma as something they can overcome. This belief in one’s capability to produce desired effects by your own actions is also called “self efficacy,” which leads to perseverance in the face of obstacles and challenges.