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Turning trauma into “post-traumatic growth”

Leaders can experience post-traumatic growth by changing their mindset, embracing spirituality and developing personal strengths, writes LaRae Quy.

11 min read


post-traumatic growth

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Everyone experiences trauma in different ways. Soldiers can experience it on the battlefield, healthcare workers in hospitals and emergency rooms, and law enforcement officers when they pull out a gun. You and I can experience it when we lose a job, get a divorce, lose a loved one or face a health crisis.

LaRae Quy

Trauma is defined as an emotional shock following a stressful or upsetting event. As an FBI agent, I worked with colleagues who saw the worst of humankind during their investigations. They were expected to end their day as if nothing disturbing had crossed their path.

Most people eventually bounce back from their trauma, but a few may experience more severe consequences like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These events in life are too disturbing and stressful to leave behind and dismiss as though nothing of significance happened. The events come back as intrusive thoughts about the incident, recurrent anxiety, flashbacks and avoidance of similar situations. 

Trauma is nothing new; it’s woven into the fabric of human history. For centuries, experts ignored the possibility of positive outcomes from traumatic experiences. Instead, they focused on how to contain the negative consequences of traumatic events. So, while we’ve heard a lot about PTSD, less familiar is the possibility that the struggle with challenging situations can also provide the potential for psychological growth.

Not everyone needs to remain stuck in their version of WWIII. Trauma is never fun and never easy, but deciding to stay in the muck or rise from the ashes is up to us.

In the 1990s, psychologists began to take a deeper dive into understanding the circumstances that can encourage Post Traumatic Growth (PTG), particularly among soldiers returning from the Iraq war. 

All it takes is a strong mind and the right mindset. Change the mindset, change the behavior, change the outcome. 

What is the secret behind Post Traumatic Growth

Life crises are seismic events. It’s nearly impossible to experience PTG in the middle of a crisis, but reflection after the fact can provide a foundation for growth. Examination can force people to think in entirely new ways about themselves, their relationships and the world. Confronting a traumatic event head-on and trying to make sense of it can lead to powerful shifts in thinking.

Research has identified the critical elements of growth resulting from struggles with adversity. They are:

  • Shift mindset/new opportunities
  • Find meaning/Appreciation of life/values
  • Develop personal strength
  • Embrace spirituality
  • Deepen relationships

Is Post Traumatic Growth is different than resilience?

Resilience is understanding how to prevail in your current circumstances rather than expecting your circumstances to change. Grit and perseverance keep a positive attitude amid struggle without expecting life to hand you a bouquet of roses.

It may sound counterintuitive, but people who were less resilient before the event tend to be more open to growing from their adversity. If someone is resilient, they don’t need to change as much. PTG, however, requires significant change because it requires them to let go of old beliefs about themselves and adopt new ones.

Growth after trauma requires resilience, but the true magic happens when you reflect, grow, and shift your perspective. According to experts, post-traumatic growth is a process of change – not the outcome of change.

Let’s take a closer look at how trauma can help us grow into stronger people:

1. Shift mindset

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters —Epictetus

Our mindset is our set of values and beliefs about ourselves and others. When we experience adversity or trauma, life is no longer happening for us; instead, life is what happened to us. We may feel we no longer have control over our destiny.

Shifting our mindsets about suffering and trauma is a process that takes time. Often, changing our mindset happens in small increments. Minor adjustments can lead to significant changes. 

When you’ve been knocked to the bottom, it’s hard to remain positive, so you’ll need to hunt the good stuff intentionally. This is a critical first step in shifting your mindset. While positive thinking has many benefits, research indicates that optimistic and happy people are more likely to recognize favorable opportunities when they appear.

Research at Stanford University has discovered two primary ways people think about their abilities — fixed vs growth mindsets. People with fixed mindsets don’t believe they can improve their situation or grow in their circumstances. They believe their intelligence is fixed; as a result, they don’t enjoy challenges because they don’t think they can improve themselves. However, people with a growth mindset believe they can improve their skills and knowledge. They enjoy taking on new challenges. They’re willing to work to gain new abilities, increase their intelligence and ultimately change their story.

How to make it work for you:

  • Accept your negative emotional reaction to your negative experience. That is normal, but it all comes down to how you think about your life’s stress. If you feel your experience is bad, then you’ll become stressed about being stressed! 
  • Seek new opportunities made available to you because of your experience.
  • Focus your attention on the opportunities, both obvious and unexpected, that come with the trauma rather than letting negative thoughts run amuck. Research shows that when you think of stress produced by trauma as having a function, you pay more attention to positive stimuli around you.

2. Find meaning

Although the term post-traumatic growth is new, the idea that great good can come through suffering is ancient. History reminds us that suffering is necessary if we want to grow. Only a sadist welcomes trauma, but William Breitbart, chief of psychiatry at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, believes that suffering is necessary to make us grow because if life were always smooth, we’d never be challenged.

Psychologists suggest that many of us need to face the trauma of grief, change or violence to move beyond the petty limits of ordinary life. Suffering asks us to find meaning; it’s a primal force. Sometimes, we need to be confronted with life-and-death situations before the need to examine our mortality arises. Adversity forces us to figure out what is next in a life that is new to us. We try to make sense of what and why things happen. When our assumptions about life are challenged, it’s confusing and frightening. Adversity and trauma produce anxious and repetitive thinking: Why me? Why did this happen? Now what? 

These are painful questions, but the process will allow us to understand our values deeply. Struggling to adjust our worldview is a process that often leads to greater clarity about the meaning of life and our purpose.

How to make it work for you:

  • Acknowledge the crap that happened. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen or ignore its impact on you.
  • Develop a new belief system about yourself that incorporates your trauma so you can glean meaning from it.
  • Allow the trauma to push you past your previous understanding of self-limiting boundaries.
  • Use your new belief system to integrate your trauma experience into your life. 

3. Develop personal strength

One of positive psychology’s critical contributions is encouraging people to reflect on, consider and identify their core personal strengths and use them to meet their goals in life. 

Personal strengths are our built-in abilities to think, feel and behave as we navigate life. We often need to modify or develop our strengths when confronted with adversity. Our openness to this type of change is vital because the person most likely to experience PTG chooses to approach adversity rather than avoid it.

Adversity, challenges and trauma provide people with opportunities to learn more about their ability to manage challenging situations. This can result in discovering strengths they never knew they had. People who embrace PTG accept that bad things happen but focus on possibilities and choices that may not have presented themselves before the trauma.

Your strengths give you your cutting edge. They never stop growing, so they can add value to your life amid adversity and trauma. Think of developing your strengths as an investment that never ends.

How to make it work for you:

  • Do you offer up 100% of yourself in certain areas and 30% of yourself in other areas?
  • Pinpoint when and why you’re at 100% and when and why you’re at 30%.
  • What personal strengths would you need to develop to show up 100% more often?

4. Relate to others

When times get tough, we learn who will be there for us and who will not. The people around us may not understand our trauma so some friendships may fade. But others will be forged. The development of relationships (both old and new) produces empathy, which leads to new depths of emotions.

Whether or not they’re a touchy-feely person, everyone who experiences trauma needs to talk through what happened and how it is still affecting them. When they articulate these things, it helps to make sense of the trauma and turn negative thoughts into productive ones. 

Research has shown that our resilience is primarily the result of being supported by others. Success in life is often related to how we surround ourselves with people who support and nourish us, encourage our hopes and dreams and make us feel good about ourselves.

Your community might be family, colleagues, friends or those you meet on your PTG journey. Traumatic events often allow you to discover that others care about you. Accepting support from others, reaching out for help, expressing emotions and learning you can count on others will strengthen your connection to people.  

How to make it work for you: Look for people who:

  • Support and encourage you.
  • Understand your point of view.
  • Offer trustworthiness.
  • Think and act in predictable patterns.
  • Possess a moral compass and behave with integrity.
  • Exude confidence in themselves, but not narcissism or arrogance.

5. Embrace spirituality

We live in a culture that flaunts the phony and thrives on superficiality. The glitter and the trivial bombard us, and it’s hard to distinguish between the genuine and the junk. We are often fooled by what mimics the real. Those who experience growth after trauma usually find the thread that leads to a more profound sense of connection to something larger than themselves, whether it’s spiritual or religious.

Spirituality is belief in something beyond the self. It offers a worldview that suggests there is more to life than just what people experience on a sensory and physical level. Spirituality implies something greater connects everyone and to the universe itself. While people use many different paths to find God or a higher power, research has shown that those who are more religious or spiritual and use their spirituality to cope with life challenges experience many benefits to their health and well-being.

Anxiety and depression are a crisis of hope. Our hope narrative gives us a sense of purpose when we deal with adversity and obstacles. Hope boils down to this: we have reason to believe we can grow to become a better person in the future and that there are ways we can move toward that growth. Hopelessness means we’ve lost touch with what matters to us. Why push on? The world has become one big toilet bowl about to be flushed.

The spiritual dimension of a person helps them answer this question: Why am I here? It also does something else fundamental — it gives them hope because they believe things will improve, and they will be the ones to improve them. Hope is sadly missing in today’s society. The World Health Organization has found that religion, personal beliefs and spirituality give people a sense of purpose and hope. Spirituality encourages people to explore what builds the human spirit. Spiritual beliefs and practices are a way to bring hope back into our lives. Without hope, we cannot be brave.

How to make it work for you: There’s no one best way to explore your spirituality. Everyone’s path toward the Holy is different and unique, but here are some valuable suggestions:

  • Make time for prayer or meditation as a part of your daily routine.
  • Read scripture, sacred texts or other writings that inspire you.
  • Join a group that worships or practices together.
  • Experiment with physical expressions, like yoga, walking, singing or dancing.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, during which she exposed and recruited foreign spies and developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Find out if you’re mentally tough with Quy’s FREE, evidence-based Mental Toughness Assessment. Quy’s new book is “Secrets of a Strong Mind (2nd edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles.”  Follow her on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.

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