Only in the last generation has the term “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD) entered the American vocabulary. First applied to returning soldiers of the Vietnam War, it was properly expanded to all manner of suffering individuals: Victims of sexual assault, those subjected to severe distress, or those who witnessed some horrific accident or school shooting. It was a description and diagnosis long overdue, for words like “shellshocked” and “battle fatigue” didn’t tell the whole story.
Thankfully, with this awareness has come a whole array of treatment options for those with PTSD. Hospitalization, art therapy, counseling, medications, rehabilitation: All of these are employed to help an afflicted soldier or emotionally-wounded victim recover. In our society, one that appears to be traumatizing by its nature, we owe such sufferers our best efforts at healing and restoration.
A new term, related to PTSD, has more recently come into use: “PTG.” It stands for “Post-Traumatic Growth.” An entirely new subset of neurological and sociological research is discovering that some who face the most severe trauma – even those with PTSD – not only recover in the aftermath, they learn to flourish.
Do these individuals suffer with many or all of the symptoms of trauma? Yes. They have sleepless nights, sweat-inducing nightmares, crippling anxiety, and seasons of panic. But that is not the whole story. With helpful care and persistence, more and more survivors of tragedy are finding ways to grow, change, and become “thrivers” – not just survivors.
Researchers conclude that these “thrivers” have a number of common denominators. They gain a renewed appreciation for life, seeing it as a precious gift. They begin focusing on their relationships, not their things or their losses. New possibilities emerge, as “thrivers” find the courage to try things they never would have earlier. They discover an inner strength they did not know they had, and almost every one of these individuals experience a spiritual change.
This is an example of modern research catching up with ancient wisdom. As the Christian mystic Lady Julian of Norwich wrote more than six centuries ago, “First comes the fall, and then the recovery from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.” Now, does one have to go through a tragedy or near-death experience to grow? Of course not.
But every person has to decide how he or she will respond to the troubles that come. He or she can choose to resist the pain, choose to numb the feelings, or descend into self-pity. He or she can also choose to survive – to thrive – letting trauma serve as a severe mercy, the kind of mercy that leads to profound transformation.
It all comes down to attitude, just as Dr. Viktor Frankl the Holocaust survivor and renown therapist concluded. Years ahead of his time, in both PTSD and PTG studies, he said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of the human freedoms – for one to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”