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Turn Post-traumatic Stress Into Post-traumatic Growth

Image of PTSD Infographic. Click to open a larger version of the image. National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month, every June, is one way to spread awareness about issues related to the condition. The individuals with PTSD are affected every day of the year, so knowing where to turn for support may help, and the treatment can be tailored to the person (DOD Graphic).

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You likely attended a briefing on post-traumatic stress (PTS) during your time in the military. This is good, as post-traumatic stress can be an incredibly difficult experience and getting help is a critical first step.

But what do you know about post-traumatic growth (PTG)? PTG is the process of going through an extremely tough experience and coming back stronger with important lessons learned about life.

PTG is a common human phenomenon across cultures and religions throughout time. Yet there are some common myths about PTS and the possibility of experiencing PTG that are important to know for warfighters and those who support them:

Myth #1: You can experience PTS or PTG, but not both.

Fact: PTS is a normal experience when facing trauma and often happens before you can experience PTG. When you experience trauma, a part of the normal human-stress response is to deeply reflect on what happened to help you learn from it and improve for future adversities.

This might include flashbacks or not being able to let things go. This process can be painful, troubling, and require the help of therapy to navigate. But this does NOT mean you are damaged.

In fact, this process is normal and can eventually lead to growth. Those who don't have some symptoms of PTS are actually less likely to grow from the experience and instead just bounce back to who they were prior to the trauma.

Growth occurs when the trauma you experienced becomes a turning point: That is, who you are after the experience is better than who you were before. Symptoms of PTS are part of that growing and changing process that enables you to transform.

Myth #2: If you haven't experienced PTG by now, you never will.

Fact: There's no deadline to grow from trauma. You can experience PTG six months or 10 years after a crisis. Further, you can continue to grow in additional ways even if you believe you've already grown from a specific trauma.

The trauma is just the catalyst: Your deep reflection and rebuilding your beliefs and values lead to your growth. This can happen over many years and continue throughout your life.

In fact, some researchers of PTG expanded the definition of trauma to include any experience that shatters one's worldview, their core values and deeply held beliefs about themselves, others, or the world. So, whether it's the death of a loved one, serious injury, painful breakup, or social isolation during a pandemic, the ongoing process of rebuilding your worldview better and stronger is what leads to your growth. This process can take a long time with many ups and downs along the way.

Myth #3: Experiencing PTG means "happily ever after."

Fact: "Post-traumatic growth means who you are now is better and stronger in a meaningful way than who you were before the event," said Army Lt. Col. Oscar Cabrera, director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, in Silver Spring, Maryland. "But it does not mean you're perfect or that life will be perfect. You'll still likely face hard times, make mistakes, and find more ways to grow. You might also go back to past behaviors or have troubling times thinking back on the trauma."

Facing these types of challenges doesn't mean you didn't grow. It means you are human, complex, and still a work in progress. Use HPRC's optimism self-check or gratitude calendar to help yourself continue to reflect, grow, and connect with the people and values you care most about.

To learn more and take a short survey to see how you might have experienced PTG from a recent crisis, read HPRC's article on the 5 benefits of post-traumatic growth.

Human Performance Resources by CHAMP is the educational arm of the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP), a Department of Defense center of excellence located at the Uniformed Services University for the Health Sciences, in Bethesda, Maryland. HPRC provides research-based facts and holistic, performance optimization resources that help members of the military community optimize their military performance by staying physically and mentally fit, fueling and hydrating properly, maintaining social ties, and staying resilient - all pieces of the puzzle that make up Total Force Fitness.

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