When UNC Charlotte professors of psychology Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi set out to write a book about the positive changes that sometimes arise in the aftermath of trauma, the phenomenon they described didn’t even have a name.
"If there's not a label, it’s hard to get people to pay attention. So we came up with the label 'posttraumatic growth,'" Tedeschi said. Publishers rejected the book because they were unfamiliar with the term, until Sage Press granted the authors a contract.
In the years following their 1999 publication of "Facilitating Posttraumatic Growth," the term posttraumatic growth has trickled into the vernacular, and the concept has gained traction within mental health circles.
Tesdeschi and Calhoun define posttraumatic growth as an experience of positive change that comes about in the aftermath of a traumatic experience, including but not limited to change in one's self, relationships, priorities or philosophy of life.
Tedeschi and Calhoun invite people for whom these experiences resonate to get in touch with them. A website that would allow people to participate in research and provide their stories of growth is currently under construction; until it is ready, they are available via email.
"Trauma, to a great degree, is in the eye of the beholder. We define trauma in terms of how much it shakes up the assumptive world," Tedeschi said. "If the event makes people rethink their beliefs about how they want to live their lives, that’s traumatic."
Calhoun and Tedeschi maintain part-time clinical practices in addition to doing research and teaching undergraduate and graduate students.
While it's tempting to view posttraumatic growth as the upside to trauma, the researchers caution that individuals experience and deal with traumatic events in individual ways. Some will perceive benefits from the experience, and others may not.
"The data suggest that a substantial proportion of trauma survivors report at least some positive changes arising from their struggle with the aftermath of trauma, although the severity of suffering may counterbalance whatever experience of positive change may have occurred," Tedeschi said.
With development of the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory, Tedeschi and Calhoun gave professionals in the field a 21-item scale to measure and assess positive outcomes reported by individuals who have experienced traumatic events. The scale has since been cited nearly 1,200 times by external researchers.
While awareness of posttraumatic growth as a potential outcome of trauma has risen, Tedeschi and Calhoun said there’s still a lot to do to get this beyond researchers to the people who help people with trauma.
"Only now are people starting to look at posttraumatic growth in the context of specific attempts to directly introduce it into clinical interventions," Calhoun said.
Tedeschi and Calhoun are careful to note that they brought to the fore something that has been documented for centuries.
"We are fully aware we didn’t invent this. It’s in Greek mythology — the hero goes out and has experiences in war and comes back wiser; it’s in novels, poetry, Presbyterian hymns," Calhoun said. "We helped focus some attention on a phenomenon that is in some way part of human nature."
Yet, despite its prevalence in human experience, posttraumatic growth was a phenomenon that did not have the attention of social, behavioral and medical scientists until Tedeschi and Calhoun gave it a name and a way to assess it.