Post-traumatic Growth and Understanding the Impact of Trauma

Yellow brick road
Lessons Learned from Dorothy’s Journey to the Land of Oz

Cori McMahon, VP of Clinical Services, Tridiuum 

I have spent almost a decade alongside countless patients faced with cancer and all of the arduous treatment that comes along with it. My perspective on life crises, trauma, and its outcomes has been shaped by hearing about, sitting beside, absorbing, caring for, shedding tears for, and supporting people on their walk through this very burdensome disease. As a clinical health psychologist, my role in a patient’s journey is to aid them in making sense of the nonsensical, to validate fears, to teach skills for coping with uncertainty and a sense of lack of control, and to manage the symptoms of anxiety and depression that creep in with the physical side effects of the disease. Being diagnosed with cancer and enduring chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery can be traumatic. In fact, one may experience multiple traumas as a result. One interesting concept that has come out of understanding the impact of these traumas is called Post-traumatic Growth (PTG).

PTG refers to positive personality change following traumatic life events. Experiencing a traumatic event can have a transformational role in personality among certain individuals and facilitate growth. PTG can sometimes be confused with resilience (or the ability to bounce back), as showing resilience in the face of trauma can be an example of post-traumatic growth. However, PTG results when one who may have otherwise had difficulty with resilience experiences a traumatic event that challenges their core beliefs, and the individual braves the physical and psychological challenge. As a result, the person experiences a sense of personal growth. (Growth After Trauma)

When considering how mental health professionals evaluate whether PTG has occurred, there are five domain areas assessed:

  1. Appreciation of life
  2. Relationship with others
  3. New possibilities in life
  4. Personal strength
  5. Spiritual change

(The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the Positive Legacy of Trauma)

There’s No Place Like Home

Think about Dorothy’s journey to the Land of Oz. While it was beautiful and she made some great friends along the way, she actually encountered quite a bit of danger. Between the tumultuous journey there, with her house being caught in a tornado and crash landing in a strange place, learning that she had inadvertently killed someone, the constant threat from the wicked witch, being kidnapped by said witch and, ultimately, causing the witch’s demise…Dorothy’s adventure was nothing short of traumatic. One of the most poignant takeaways from this story, of course, is Dorothy’s proclamation at the end of the film, “There’s no place like home.” As a result of her experiences, Dorothy had grown. She had come to truly appreciate the value of having her family members close to her and the gift of being home. She gained a sense of self-efficacy, or the sense of being able to handle things she previously thought insurmountable. She learned that the happiness, the strength, the courage she thought she had to travel far and wide to find was right in front of her.

This moves me to wonder — will there be evidence of PTG as a result of the COVID-19 experience we’re all facing? Just as Dorothy grew to appreciate her home and her family from a whole new perspective, will we experience a change in the way we look at our lives? In the way we prioritize our days? In the way we decide what and who is deserving of our attention once life returns to “normal?” Beyond the individual experience, how will the U.S. healthcare system change and grow as a result of this trauma? I’d like to think that employee wellness will be brought to the forefront; that the bulky bureaucracy that often slows innovation will be trimmed down significantly; and that the long-held understanding of the medical institution and its place in the community will be appreciated in a new light.

When a patient has walked through a cancer diagnosis and, potentially, permanently-altering surgery, months of chemotherapy, and the Star Wars-like experience of radiation treatment, that person will tell you a story — a story of loss, constant uncertainty, feeling out of control of their own life, and, at times, sadness they weren’t sure they’d be able to endure. However, they may also tell you about a new appreciation for the “little things,” an ability to brush off daily frustrations, or experiencing an emotional intimacy with a loved one that is more fulfilling than it was before. They are describing their own post-traumatic growth. This is the “silver lining” that can come from a traumatic experience, whether it’s cancer, or living through a global pandemic, or journeying to Oz. (Post-Traumatic Growth From the Coronavirus – Finding Hope)

There is no denying that this pandemic is having a negative impact on the mental health of people globally. For some, the experience is nothing short of devastating, and for everyone, it is resulting in a heightened state of stress. While we are currently walking through this together, let’s remain mindful of the small moments of kindness, the large gestures of heroism, the value we find in togetherness (be it mostly virtual), and the importance of acknowledging our fears and sense of uncertainty. While we feel a lack of control over many things in life, let us move with intention day-by-day to control those things that we can and consider the growth potential we possess.

And, like Dorothy, may we all come to realize that sometimes there really is no place like home.