What We Can Learn From Adversity

“There’s been a lot of attention paid to PTSD in our military population, but very little research on post-traumatic growth,” says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.

Desmarais was referring to her recent findings that fly in the face of some Department of Defense (DoD) training that implies that people are either resilient or not.

The truth is, it’s just not that black and white. As Desmarais notes, “The way veterans respond to trauma is not a zero-sum game.”

People can struggle with PTSD and experience emotional growth due to traumatic events. And there is also no set-in-stone timeline for growth. Growth can happen rather quickly, or it can be a process that unfolds over years.

Following 197 veterans from all branches of the military – approximately half served in the Army, 72 percent were active duty, and 69.4 percent were male – Desmarais and her team asked them to report on a traumatic event that had occurred within the previous three years and then asked them a series of questions designed to measure post-traumatic growth. Growth was measured on a scale from zero to 105.

Here’s the results:

Study participants fell into four groups with respect to their post-traumatic growth. The short-term moderate group, including 33.7 percent of participants, had post-traumatic growth scores typically between 40 and 60 and experienced that growth within about 6 months of the traumatic event. The long-term moderate group made up 18.7 percent of participants, and reported similar levels of post-traumatic growth, but more than a year after the traumatic event. The high-growth group, 20.7 percent of participants, had scores typically between 70 and 105 – and this growth could take anywhere from a few months to several years. The last group, made up of 26.9 percent of participants, experienced limited post-traumatic growth (Desmarais et al., 2017).

The researchers also found that members of each group shared common characteristics. One that should surprise you – the group that experienced the greatest post-traumatic growth was also had the highest rate of PTSD. However, they also spent the most time thinking about their traumatic event (Desmarais et al., 2017).

On the other hand, those who had only moderate growth, spent less time thinking about the trauma, had lower rates of PTSD, and reported that the trauma did not challenge their worldview as much as the high-growth group did (Desmarais et al., 2017).

“One of the key points here is that there can be real benefit from having military veterans think about their traumatic experiences,” notes Desmarais. “While it may be painful in the short term, it can contribute to their well-being in the long term.”