I recently rode out Hurricane Irma in Miami. For three days before it hit, the storm was a Category 5 and the forecast track for the eye went directly over my house. As I boarded up my windows, bought supplies and prepared to report on any devastation, I was a quivering mess.
A good friend insisted there might be an upside to the experience. He reassured me it was OK to be scared, that all brave people are. He said that facing down my fear would benefit me in the end. And he reminded me of my motto: Fortune Favors the Brave.
People who endure trauma or adversity—such as an illness or accident, death of a loved one, or a natural disaster—often find that they feel stronger and more confident afterward. Some may even feel that their life has new meaning. Psychologists call this phenomenon “posttraumatic growth.”
Writers, philosophers and religious leaders have observed for centuries that people can change positively after a major life crisis. But recently, science has begun to quantify how and why changes occur.
Researchers have identified five core areas of posttraumatic growth: People experience a greater appreciation of life, enjoy enhanced relationships, discover new possibilities, find an increased sense of personal strength, and discover a spiritual or existential change, meaning they connect more with something larger than themselves. Some people experience growth in all five areas, some in just one or a few.
“We’re generally pretty complacent in our lives,” says
a clinical psychologist in San Antonio and co-author of “The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook: Coming Through Trauma Wiser, Stronger, and More Resilient.” “Then a crisis comes along and our core beliefs are shaken, such as safety, security and fairness.”
Some people may be more predisposed to posttraumatic growth than others, the research suggests. These include those who are more open to new experiences, as well as those who show less resiliency in adversity, because a prolonged struggle may give them more time to reflect and rethink their belief system. Extroverts may be more likely to experience growth because they are more comfortable asking for social support, a key component of the process. And women seem to be more inclined toward it, possibly for the same reason.
Four years ago,
nearly died after heart surgery. He flatlined and had to be resuscitated and rushed back for a second surgery for a coronary bypass. The recovery took four grueling months, during which Mr. Mendelson, a brand consultant and author, had to cancel a number of speaking engagements, including a TEDx talk in Malaysia. He was 30 at the time.
To stay focused, he started meditating. During one meditation session, he began repeating to himself: “Take this one day at a time.” (This eventually became “one day at a time, one week at a time, one month at a time.”) He credits the phrase with getting him through the hardest parts of the recovery.
Mr. Mendelson, who lives in New York City says he now tries to live more in the moment. When he feels stressed, he asks himself: “What can I do today? What can wait until tomorrow?” He considers this his personal philosophy.
He also asks himself: If I was dead tomorrow, would this matter?” “Most of the things we stress about don’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things,” he says. “This question helps to remind me of that often.”
Time alone is not enough to produce posttraumtic growth, says
a professor of psychology at Marywood University, in Scranton, Pa., who gives workshops on the topic. “You have to engage in an active cognitive and behavioral processes to produce meaning from the event,” he says. He points to three factors that are typically necessary: social support—friends and family to help you; spirituality—any sense of something bigger than yourself; and adaptive cognitive coping—a decision to accept that you can’t change the tragedy but won’t let it destroy you.
For 48 hours before and during the storm, my pulse raced and I felt gripped with a physical fear I had never experienced. But I also felt empowered. I rode out the storm with my sister and her family. I spent much of my time interviewing people on the phone who were hunkered down awaiting the eye and having text conversations with friends and family who wrote to see how I was doing. During the worst of it—the multiple tornado warnings, after we had lost power—I hosted dance parties for my niece and nephew, ages 6 and 9, in a closet to shelter and distract them. We turned on the strobe lights on our headlamps and sang “We are Family.”
When it was all over I did feel different. I had some damage to my home and went nine days without power. But I felt stronger, more capable and better prepared for life’s next challenge.
How to Achieve Posttraumatic Growth
Experts break down the steps.
- Write about your experience. The goal is to tell your narrative in a positive way. Focus on what helped you feel strong. “Writing helps you think through things and take ownership,” says Bret Moore, a clinical psychologist in San Antonio. “You can go back and read it over and think about the nuances.”
- Rate your growth.David Palmiter, a professor of psychology at Marywood University, in Scranton, Pa., suggests two exercises. First, list three of your worst life experiences, and rate the pain at its most intense on a scale of 1 to 100. Then list the ways you are better today because of the suffering of each experience, and rate this benefit from 1 to 100. In the second exercise, list the three best things in your life. Rate them on a scale of 1 to 100. Then ask yourself if there was any pain or suffering that led to these good things. Rate the pain at its most intense on a scale of 1 to 100, and then again as it is now.
- Seek expert companionship. Find someone you trust who is willing to listen and isn’t judgmental. Research shows that this kind of relationship, whether it’s with a loved one, counselor or clergy member, is a great conduit for growth.
- Keep doing what made you feel strong during your ordeal. I rented a big white pickup truck before the hurricane—and named it Moby—so I could travel to areas that were damaged afterward to report. From the minute I pulled out of the rental agency, I felt safer than I ever had driving in Florida, and kind of badass. (I drive a VW Beetle convertible.) I’ve now been test-driving pickups.
- Give back. Often, people receive an outpouring of support during a hard time that can be buoying and hopeful. Return this when you feel better. Thank the people who reached out. Make an effort to become closer to those who were there the most. Volunteer to help people who are suffering, maybe from a similar experience.
Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on