PTG and PTS – reflecting on the trauma response of growth amongst the decline
For those involved, in any capacity, with the Victorian 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires your experiences and losses are respectfully acknowledged. The lives of thousands of people, animals, businesses and places were decimated on the day and during the aftermath. The costs and consequences continue. The magnitude and impact is individually and nationally significant.
This writing shares a trauma insider’s account, delivering a message of universal applicability and value. Posttraumatic growth (PTG) information is relevant to workers, volunteers, individuals and organizations interested in preparedness and recovery from events involving direct or vicarious trauma exposure. This paper is about the importance of posttraumatic growth knowledge, its value as a resource for trauma management toolboxes, and the opportunity it provides to generate benefit in all manner of traumatic events:- fire, flood, drought, storm, man-made events and more.
Tragically 173 people died from the 2009 Black Saturday fires, including three of my family members. Not surprisingly, this experience induced significant trauma caused decline with health, personal and work impacts and posttraumatic stress (PTS). Surprisingly, amongst the negative impacts and reactions to that catastrophe I also experienced positive personal transformation – posttraumatic growth – PTG. Undeniably it is a paradox: hope and capacity generated within the hell and incapacitation.
In short, PTG and PTS have been integral, intertwined parts of my trauma reaction to losing three family members, their home and their business during the Black Saturday fires. Bottom-line: I am very thankful for the posttraumatic growth for without it the losses and decline would have been even more challenging.
No PTG words, no information, missed recovery opportunity
Almost four years after Black Saturday I first heard, by accident, the words posttraumatic growth. I was informed that PTG is a formally recognized term. Indeed, this trauma response is professionally acknowledged; there is research supported evidence. Up until that accidental moment of learning I didn’t appreciate that trauma could be positively transformative as a normal part of a person’s complex reaction to trauma. I never anticipated, nor was prepared for, trauma induced growth. I did not understand the entirety of my trauma reaction or have PTG resources or examples from other people to draw upon, or the terminology and language to voice what was occurring.
Indeed, between 2009 and 2012, despite being actively engaged in the Black Saturday recovery space, including extensively with the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority and with the government established Bushfire Bereaved Advisory Group, and despite receiving lots of information about trauma impacts, never once were the words posttraumatic growth mentioned by any person, agency or government department. I look back and think how illogical. How was that possible? There was so much missed opportunity to help people! I would have welcomed the words, explanation and examples of PTG. There was a lot of helpful and important official support and information about trauma, and the incapacitating impacts, but all of it one-sided, all failing to ever mention PTG. The PTG silence was systemic, from individuals to disaster response agencies and government. That was not helpful at all.
For recovery, I needed my whole trauma experience acknowledged, not just the incapacitating side. But incapacitation was the total focus. Because of the vacuum of PTG information or conversation, I stayed fairly silent about my PTG. To be honest I felt conflicted and somewhat guilty that some good came out of something so horrendous. Obviously I would never have chosen to grow in this way. Nonetheless, the disaster happened and as a person I both declined and grew.
No society is immune from traumatic events. Common sense alone suggests that being educated and prepared for the range of trauma reactions a person may experience matters! This makes PTG knowledge transfer important not only for recovery but also critical in preparedness and capacity building initiatives.
Acknowledgement of trauma reactions
Posttraumatic Stress – PTS – from disasters is known and acknowledged but Posttraumatic Growth – PTG – seems practically invisible as a term.
Hardly anyone seems to know about, or use, the PTG term or words. This represents a deterrent. It is easy to appreciate that trauma impacted people, unfamiliar with the PTG term, either don’t have the needed simple or normalized language to describe what is happening to them, and/or they end up feeling reluctant to mention ‘trauma growth’ because others are silent. This breeds stigma.
Acknowledgement of PTG matters. The patches of trauma light – of posttraumatic growth – coexisting alongside the darkness of trauma represent trauma survival anchors. Anchors of hope when so much feels hopeless and overwhelming, anchors of self-belief, points of connection and opportunity to acknowledge capacity as well as incapacity. In a nut shell positive options, options that trauma involved people may benefit from. A word of caution though. Trauma reaction is a whole, complex, multifaceted experience. This must be respected. The PTG term should not be bandied about in isolation and out of context, nor be excluded from trauma discussions; both extremes are damaging pathways.
Investigate for yourself. Ask your friends, family and co-workers “Have you ever heard the term PTG or the words posttraumatic growth?”
My experience, and I’ve asked hundreds of people that question, is that it’s difficult to find many who have heard about PTG, let alone find people educated and knowledgeable about PTG as a formally recognized trauma reaction. Ironically people readily identify with the concept that ‘sometimes good things also come out of bad experiences’. Upon hearing about PTG, they usually ‘get it’ instantly, often asking the same question I did, “Why on earth don’t we use these words?”
This writing advocates that the words posttraumatic growth (PTG) should be promoted so they become mainstream knowledge and language, just like the words posttraumatic stress (PTS) are. It recommends greater levels of targeted conversation, research, policy and practice that specifically acknowledges and enables PTG.
How to make a difference
Powerful change starts with small seeds of initiative. From the un-helpful personal experience of PTG silence, and from saying, when I first heard the words, “I wish I had been told about PTG”, my world changed again with further positive opportunity. I was invited into a research role by the University of Melbourne to partner with an interdisciplinary team in survivor initiated and informed PTG research. Marrying the lived experience of the interviewees with technical trauma expertise has advanced PTG understandings and produced PTG resources and presentations. Check out www.posttraumagrowth.net to see what individuals and workers involved with Black Saturday say about their own PTG experiences.
I have grown to be a passionate PTG advocate. You can too. So another challenge, a call to arms. You can make a difference to trauma recovery by advancing the PTG lens. It’s easy. First and foremost, create change by simply having conversations and using the specific words of posttraumatic growth or PTG. Advocate for PTG terminology, promotion, research and education in your community, your workplaces, in your volunteer organizations and in emergency preparedness and recovery policy and practices. Speak up about what you want and need as PTG resources. Contribute to the evidence base.
It is time for:
- Courage and holistic discussion about the full range of possible trauma reactions, including growth.
- More conversation, education, policy and practices that purposefully integrate PTG.
- Reduced PTG stigma and isolation.
- Respecting decline while honouring growth from trauma
It is time for you to take PTG action!
For more information, go to www.posttraumagrowth.net