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Monday, May 1, 2017

3 Takeaways from “Upside: The new science of post-traumatic growth”

3 Takeaways from “Upside: The new science of post-traumatic growth”
A review of the book "Upside: The new science of post-traumatic growth"

When I was preparing for the Post-Traumatic Growth Workshop (April 21st, 2017), I began to think about weaving the areas of growth into various modalities to 1) promote growth and 2) work as a preventative measure in mental wellness. This thought process was first initiated by reading Upside: The new science of post-traumatic growth, by Jim Rendon.

Upside is an absorbing read which is applicable to combat veterans, their families, trauma survivors, clinicians, and those who wish to gain a greater understanding of what post-traumatic growth is. This book is definitely worth a read, and will likely expand your impression of the aftermath of trauma. Throughout the book I found three recurring themes: there are five key areas in which growth occur, acceptance is key to growth, and post-traumatic growth doesn’t look a certain way; the destination is the same, journey is different. Let’s delve into each.

There are five key areas in which growth occur

Tedeschi & Calhoun were the first among several researchers who took a look at post-traumatic growth (PTG). What they repeatedly found was that there were five areas in which growth occurred in those who experienced PTG:

  1. New opportunities or possibilities in life
  2. Increased sense of personal strength
  3. Change in relationships with others
  4. Greater appreciation for life in general
  5. Deepening of spiritual life

In regards to PTG, the author makes it very clear that the trauma is one that shakes the survivor to the core. Rendon goes on to report that more than half of trauma survivors will experience growth. Those who experience PTG will generally have increased growth in all five areas listed above. The tricky part here, moving research forward, is how to measure growth. It’s difficult (impossible?) to meet people before they experience a core shaking trauma, measure their baseline in the five areas, and then measuring areas of PTG sometime after they experience a trauma.

In addition to the five areas of growth, researchers also noted several other consistencies. Of note:

  • A balance (or dialectic, if you will) of both types of thoughts: “I have been through worse experiences than others” and “Others have experienced worse than I have.” There’s an inherent acceptance that both can be true.
  • A belief that that the world is mostly good, and that bad things won’t happen to us.
  • Deliberate rumination [purposeful rumination that is driven by the survivor, not by the trauma] is essential in the growth process.

Acceptance is Key to Growth

In Chapter 12 of Upside, Rendon describes one combat veteran’s experience of killing a child and how the veteran is now working with children in order to honor the lives of those who have passed. The veteran goes on to explain: “it does not make what happened right, but it is a way to take the energy and channel it in a productive way. This is acceptance, and without it, you can’t move past any experience (traumatic or not). Acceptance does not imply that we are rolling over, giving in, or in agreeance. At the same time, acceptance does mean that we are accepting reality as it is now, and not how we want it to be or think that it should be.

Earlier in the text, Rendon illustrates how gratitude also plays a role in PTG. There are many ways to cultivate gratitude, and one of them is through mindfulness practices. I would like to highlight here that to be mindful, we need to be rooted in the present moment and thus accepting where we are. A question for you to mule over on your own: how do we talk about gratitude with clients who have experienced a core shaking trauma, without being invalidating?

Post-Traumatic Growth Doesn’t Look a Certain Way; the destination is the same, journey is different

Also in Chapter 12, Stephen Joseph (another leader in PTG) is quoted as saying “PTS is part of the growth process- not a set of symptoms,” and goes on to explain that patients are in charge of their own process. This really resonated with me, and that old adage of “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” came to mind. The destination is growth in some form, the journey is the process that the patient goes through to get there.

Upside listed several ways in which the process of growth can occur. In Chapter 6, the author goes into detail about how expressive writing can jump start the process of growth, both by making meaning of the trauma and also as a way to accept what one has been through. Researchers found that expressive writing also had a bonus benefit: increase in physical wellbeing [if done 2x a week, for a minimum of 2 minutes]. Other techniques mentioned were anything of a creative realm: making art, photography, & experiential activities (being in nature and doing something) to name a few. The takeaway for any of the creative techniques of the growth process is that the audience for the creativity is the trauma survivor themselves; they are not putting on a show.

Rendon, J. (2015). Upside. New York, NY: Touchstone.

Kimberly Hardy, LMHC