The phoenix is my favorite mythological animal!
In Greek mythology, a phoenix was a long-lived bird that regenerated and obtained new life by arising from her own ashes after dying in a burst of flames. Since I was a child, I was fascinated by the myth of the phoenix. One of the reasons for my attraction is the idea of rebirth and renewal that it represents. The other is the fact that the phoenix dies in a show of flames almost as if the most dramatic and traumatic experience is the very reason the phoenix is reborn!
For as long as I can remember I have been intrigued by how some people who experienced serious life challenges were able not only to survive but also to experience a profound transformation that surpassed what was present before their struggle. How did these individuals find a way to thrive, often despite physically and mentally traumatic experiences? How did they rebuild a new sense of self after their identity had been shaken at its core?
I often asked myself: when bad things happen to us can we benefit from the stress we experience?
Today, I want to introduce you to a completely new way of thinking about the bad things that happened to you. This new concept is called Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) or also stress-related growth: the positive mental shift experienced as a result of adversity.
I dedicated my life’s work to studying the science of stress-related growth. Stress-related growth is defined as the experience of positive change resulting from the struggle with major life crises. The concept is, of course, ancient and has been prevalent in the literature, philosophy, and religion of almost all cultures. The hero journey is an example of this concept in our popular culture.
It’s important to note that we’re not talking about the traumatic or stressful event itself, but how the event becomes a catalyst for positive change. Stress-related growth is the process after the traumatic event that explains the transformation that follows a stressful experience in life.
The concept was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, and Lawrence Calhoun at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte in the mid-1990s, and describes how people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward.
These two researchers decided to study resilient people. They started interviewing survivors of severe injuries, people who had survived something physical or emotional in their adult life like a brain injury, blindness, paralysis, a major catastrophe, or being held as a prisoner of war. Over and over, they heard how people and their families were deeply saddened by the losses and changes, but nevertheless, the experience had changed them for the better.
Stress-related growth involves a big change.
People developed new understandings of themselves, the world they lived in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have, and a better understanding of how to live their life.
Stress-related growth can be confused with resilience, but the two are different concepts.
Resilience is a personal attitude or ability to bounce back from life’s adversities. Science is now finding ways to measure resilience in the body and the brain as a protective factor that counteracts or mitigates the effects of stress that follows the exposure to adversity.
Stress-related growth, on the other hand, refers to what can happen to someone who might not be equipped to bounce back naturally from a traumatic event that challenges their core beliefs. This person endures a psychological struggle and then ultimately finds a sense of personal growth and renewal of their identity.
This is different from resilience which happens naturally and doesn’t require action. Stress-related growth is an active process that takes a lot of time, energy and struggle. In fact, paradoxically, people who were less resilient before their tragedy tend to be more open to stress-related growth. It is often less resilient people, who go through distress and confusion as they try to understand why this terrible thing happened to them, who find reasons and strength to seek what the stressing experience means for their world view and to change their perspective to allow a new view or new priorities to unfold.
Stress-related growth is visible!
To evaluate whether someone has achieved growth after trauma, Tedeschi and Calhoun developed a scale called the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI) which looks for positive responses in five main areas:
- Increased sense of appreciation and gratitude for life.
- Improvement in the relationships with others: more value placed on friends and family, learning not to take people for granted. An increased sense of compassion and longing for more intimate relationships as well as being more accepting of our own vulnerabilities and limitations as human beings.
- Seeing new possibilities in life, establishing new priorities and reevaluating one’s life purpose and mission.
- Increased personal and emotional strength and deeper wisdom.
- Deepening of one’s spiritual life.
Some of the statements reported by the researchers included sentiments like “the realization of the importance of being present in daily living”; “an increased sense of compassion for others”; “an improved ability to accept help from others more easily.”
How can we experience stress-related growth?
It really depends on the type of adversity, the circumstances, the timing, and your definition of growth. It is really an individual experience, but research is showing some common characteristics:
- There appear to be two traits that make someone more likely to experience stress-related growth: openness to experience and extraversion. That’s because people who are more open are more likely to reconsider their belief systems and seek out connections with others.
- Women also tend to report more growth than men, even if the difference is relatively small.
- Age also can be a factor, with children under 8 less likely to have the cognitive capacity to experience stress-related growth, while those in late adolescence and early adulthood are more open to the type of change that such growth reflects.
- There also may be a genetic predisposition for stress-related growth, but researchers are just beginning to tease this out. In a 2014 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders, for example, Harvard social epidemiologist Erin Dunn and her team of researchers examined data previously collected from over 200 Hurricane Katrina survivors and found that a gene called RGS2, linked to fear-related disorders and psychological stress, significantly predicted post-traumatic growth, although the results are difficult to replicate.
- Positive personality traits like optimism and future orientation are also good predictors of stress-related growth.
Is it possible to prepare ourselves to grow after adversity?
Researchers of stress-related growth say YES, it is possible if we allow people to understand that this may be a possibility for themselves and that it is not a miracle but a fairly normal process if and when trauma occurs.
Interestingly, research shows that the more severe the event, the more growth we’ll see.
For example, if you fall and twist your ankle, you may be shaken for a few days or weeks, but the incident will probably not prompt you to make significant changes in your life… except for maybe better shoes…
While if you have been in a serious accident where you almost died, you will probably be open to bigger change. After a more significant trauma, you will likely have more questions and thoughts about your own mortality and about how you want to spend the rest of your life and what impact you want to make.
However we don’t really prepare ourselves to grow after setbacks and instead, we often enter a cycle of fear.
That is why I’m dedicated to helping people understand the power of mind-body connection and self-care to harness life’s stress as a catalyst for self-awareness and personal growth that can help transform a person’s life into something far better than ever imagined.
I discovered this first-hand through my own journey and then through my extensive research of the brain.
The brain is plastic!
For as long as I can remember I have been intrigued by the beauty of the human brain and its incredible potential for growth and healing. In science, this potential is called neuroplasticity.
This is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself after a change. This happens because our neurons, the cells of our brain and our nervous system, can form new neural connections throughout life, especially to compensate for injury and disease, and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.
During such changes, the brain prunes the neural connections that are no longer necessary or useful and strengthens the new and necessary ones. The birth of new neurons can reshape and rewire your brain.
The key is to activate as many of these pathways as possible, given they work synergistically, and to learn ways to expand the capacity of your brain and of your nervous system to manage stress.
How can a person manifest stress-related growth?
When people make radical changes after a significant life event or trauma, they usually put into action what is changing about them in their thoughts. They develop a new mission so that they can live differently. Their purpose is often altruistic in nature, sometimes a true calling.
It is crucial to understand that stress-related growth does not make everything all better; it does not make all the stress disappear. But it can bring true meaning to a person’s life by forcing us to focus on bigger questions — questions and concepts about wisdom, virtue, and meaning.
However, stress-related growth does not imply that the adversity is not destructive and challenging or that the victims should be able to simply bounce back to ‘normal’ life after adversity. Rather, stress-related growth gives us the hope and the evidence that over time people can benefit from their adversity. Stress-related growth proposes the disruptive idea that we don’t bounce back from challenges, we bounce forward!
What are the steps to manifest stress-related growth in your life?
The first step is to feel the pain. To promote stress-related growth, you will need to actively approach difficulty and suffering rather than avoid it. Feel and acknowledge the pain. Let the pain teach you the lesson you are meant to learn. Sit and learn to deal with the feelings of loss, anger, and other emotional pain that you are experiencing following the adversity even if and when it is tremendously difficult. Seek help and share your struggle but don’t avoid looking inside yourself.
The second step is to go through a phase of intense reflection and constructive self-disclosure. Once the emotional phase is over, it is important to reflect and begin to let in opportunities for change and growth. A lot of this process depends on the type of support a person receives. If you are surrounded by nurturing relationships and a strong support system that encourages change and reflection, you will be in a better spot to grow than if you are surrounded by people who are toxic or naysayers to your ideas of how you might want to change and grow.
If you are lucky, you may rely on family and friends, or community. Sometimes you might need to seek the help of an expert like a therapist or a psychoanalyst. Most people who experience traumatic events don’t get professional psychological help. What is important here is that you know that the attitude and support of those people will play a huge role in your ability to grow.
I am forever grateful for the amazing support of my psychoanalyst and my hypnotherapist. When I was going through the most stressful time of my life, they helped me reflect and process the multiple traumatic experiences that I had endured and with time, they helped me find a way towards my own wisdom.
The third step is to learn tools to deal with non-constructive emotions like anger or self-pity and instead open your mind to new opportunities, to new ways of seeing and living in the world. You can do this with the help of a therapist, a mentor, or a coach. This is called expert companionship. Your expert companion could also be a person in a social network who has gone through a similar experience who understands and who can act as a positive mentor. Or if you are lucky, it can be a family member or friend willing to support you.
What is important is to pursue active and constructive ways of seeking and practicing change in your life and to increase the capacity of your brain and of your nervous system to grow and evolve.
You can also use the rituals of my free audio-training to develop new healthy habits to support your change.
Our wounds, our failures, and our challenges eventually heal. And if we’re lucky, we become stronger because of them.
Remember: you have the power to evolve into your most glorious self!