On March 6, 1987, a ferry traveling from England to Belgium capsized, causing the death of 193 people. In the months after the disaster, many of the approximately 300 survivors suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including upsetting dreams; anxiety; emotional detachment and numbness; and difficulties with sleep and concentration.
However, in time, some of the survivors reported some surprising positive effects. Three years after the disaster, psychologist Stephen Joseph, then a Ph.D. student, carried out a survey which found that, although PTSD was still common (albeit with diminished symptoms), 43 percent of the survivors reported that their view of life had changed for the better. They reported that they no longer took life for granted, that they valued their relationships more, that they lived each day to the full, that they felt more experienced about life, and so on.
This was one of the first studies of a concept which has become very important in psychology in recent years: post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic growth (or PTG) is the idea that, in the long run, traumatic events and experiences—like illness, accidents, bereavement, addiction and divorce—can have beneficial effects. Often, after the initial shock and pain of a traumatic situation has faded away, people report feeling more appreciative of their lives, and sensing a new inner strength and confidence. They feel that their relationships are more intimate and authentic, and that they have a new sense of meaning and purpose. They often become less materialistic and more altruistic, more concerned with the well-being of others than with their own success and status. They develop a more philosophical or spiritual attitude to life, with—in the words of Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, two of the pioneers of the theory of PTG—a “deeper level of awareness.”
Overall, it appears that nearly half of people who experience such traumatic events are likely to experience PTG in the aftermath.
When a crisis occurs in a community (such as a war or a natural disaster), people often react by becoming more interconnected. They become friendlier, more cooperative and altruistic. People feel a common sense of purpose, and a spirit of cooperation begins to replace normal competitiveness. For the community, this often equates to a kind of post-traumatic growth. The whole community shifts into a higher level of integration. It’s as if, rather than existing as isolated individuals, people fuse together into a whole. One study showed evidence of collective post-traumatic growth after natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods. In these situations, people developed communal coping strategies and had more collective gatherings.
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