Can People Recover After A Traumatic Event Like A Natural Disaster?

In the mid-1990’s, two psychologists (Tedeschi and Calhoun) developed a theory about how positive transformations can be experienced after a traumatic event.


Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is this theory that proposes people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward.


Stated another way, a person who experiences their home burnt to the ground is capable of creating new understandings of themselves and their world and articulate the kind of future they desire and often hold more clarity about how they live life.


Post-traumatic growth theory suggests that someone who struggles to bounce back after experiencing a traumatic event may do so because the event significantly challenged their core beliefs about self and life, experiences psychological struggle that impacts their daily living, but eventually is able to find a sense of personal growth. The time it takes to reach the outcome of ‘personal growth’ varies, and what personal growth means for each person is different.


How exactly do the researchers measure post-traumatic growth after a person experiences a traumatic event (e.g., natural disaster)?


Psychologists look for positive responses in five areas: 

  • Appreciation of life 

  • Relationships with others 

  • New possibilities in life 

  • Personal strength 

  • Spiritual change 

How many people experience post-traumatic growth?


The researchers state that using numbers and data is challenging because humans are complex. No two people will have the same outcomes despite experiencing the same traumatic event. Several factors influence post-traumatic growth: type of trauma; the circumstances of the trauma; the timing of the event; previous experiences with traumatic events.


What researchers can say is that there are personality attributes like openness, extroversion, optimism and future orientation that are positively related with post-traumatic growth. Likewise, the level of psychological stress and dysfunction experienced by the person after the event both have a role in whether or not post-traumatic growth occurs.


What are some practical steps to support the possibility of post-traumatic growth from occurring?

  • People understand that post-traumatic growth is a possibility

  • Psychological and emotional stress is common responses to a traumatic event

  • Encouraging them to focus on what’s meaningful in their lives. Engaging in activities aligned with this meaning, such as spending time with family and friends.

  • Seeking the support of a therapist and psychologist.

The hope is that people who’ve experienced a traumatic event will not “just get by or suffer through it” but rather to acknowledge goodness of their life. Specifically focusing on how meaningful and satisfying it can be.



Dr. Erika McElroy

Smooth Rock Psychological Services, LLC

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