The theory of post-traumatic growth (PTG) suggests people who go through psychological trauma can have positive growth as a result. Developed by psychologists in the mid 1990’s, PTG is a process by which people develop new understandings of themselves and the world they live in, making it easier for them to face the future and build a productive live for themselves.
On the surface, post-traumatic growth sounds like resilience but becoming more resilient is only one potential outcome of going through the PTG process. Other outcomes include being more compassionate, more embracing of new experiences, and becoming closer to friends and family. Professor Kanako Taku, who has both researched PTG and experienced it first-hand as a survivor of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, provides a good explanation:
Resiliency is the personal attribute or ability to bounce back. PTG, on the other hand, refers to what can happen when someone who has difficulty bouncing back experiences a traumatic event that challenges his or her core beliefs, endures psychological struggle, and then ultimately finds a sense of personal growth.
This means someone who was already resilient when they experienced trauma won’t experience PTG. Resilient people don’t go through as much distress and as much psychological challenge to their belief systems.
What makes people more likely to experience PTG after trauma? There is some experimental evidence of a genetic predisposition to grow from experiences. Another study suggests age is a factor: young children are less likely to have the cognitive capacity to experience PTG, while those in late adolescence and early adulthood are more open to the type of change that such growth reflects.
However, these experiments are not conclusive as the post-traumatic growth is self-reported. It may be a coping mechanism that some people who experience trauma want to believe they grew as a result. A rigorous experiment found exactly that – when an event threatens our sense of self, we are more likely to believe that the event made us better in some way.
I’m unsure if the distinction matters in practice. The key to growth – whether induced by trauma or not – is to be open minded. That’s because people who are open minded are more likely to reconsider their belief systems and more likely to learn by connecting with others.