“The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.”– Chinese Proverb
For the hundreds of proverbs about adversity, and for all the spiritual traditions that emphasize finding meaning in times of difficulty, what do we actually know about this process? Is suffering really beneficial?
Post-traumatic growth, as the name suggests, is the kind of positive growth we can experience in the face of tough times. Research has shown it to be a very real psychological phenomenon: we see it in sexual assault survivors and after terrorist attacks . Even in the face of the most unforgivable, unjust, vile acts of humanity - acts we should never have to reconcile in the first place - survivors are able to report making positive life changes, and we see increases in kindness, teamwork and faith in those who have suffered.
According to psychology researcher Kasley Killam in an article for Scientific American, research has pinpointed 5 key ways that crises unlock our positive growth.
1. We rise to the crisis, and in doing so, we may surprise ourselves with our resilience and have more trust our own strength.
2. Stressful times can bring people together, bolstering the bonds of our relationships.
3. Challenging life events can reveal our complacency in other areas, making us realize just how lucky we are and boosting a sense of gratitude.
4. Having our beliefs challenged can reveal just how deeply we hold those values. Fighting for what we believe in can be incredibly validating to our sense of self.
5. All major changes, negative or positive, can make us re-evaluate our assumptions. Where we may not have perceived possibility before, a shift in our reality can expose new ideas, truths, and possibilities. How often do we lament an option being taken off the table, only to later realize something better was coming all along?
While this is all lovely, it's important to point out that the growth process isn't necessarily automatic. Only once we’ve accepted our circumstances (easier said than done), then can we go seek out the emotional support we need. It's clear that the psychological benefits of post-traumatic growth are ours for the taking, but it’s up to us to proactively get there.