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NEWS | May 30, 2014

Post-traumatic growth: thriving through life's crises

By Maj. Thomas A. Jarrett U.S. Army Public Health Command

How often do we hear that yet another Soldier, colleague or family has been traumatized by an event?

Learning that someone survived a crisis may cause us to look at him or her differently, imagining that they might now be damaged permanently by such events.

We see little - if any - benefit to loss, struggle or suffering, and quickly label those who suffer "victims." Why do so many hold this viewpoint?

Professionals have become very skilled in diagnosing, treating, and sometimes even preventing mental disorders; however, focus on disease and injury alone may blind us to hidden growth opportunities.

Many experiencing crises and adversity are able to resolve and grow from these events, drawing upon internal strengths previously unrecognized.

There is an advantage to not seeing yourself as traumatized. Noted psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl, a European Holocaust survivor, described this path toward thriving in his book, "Man's Search for Meaning." He observed humans must find an adaptive meaning for their suffering if they are to survive and thrive. Current researchers are adding to his insights daily.

Psychologists James Calhoun and Richard Tedschi of the University of North Carolina coined the term "post-traumatic growth" in 1986.

They find that individuals who struggle with life's crises often realize positive personal growth through their loss and suffering, though no one would choose that path towards growth.

Using their post-traumatic growth inventory, individuals can measure their own growth or thriving responses using five categories: Appreciation of Life, Relating to Others, Personal Strength, New Possibilities and Spiritual Change. Additionally, virtually all cultures surveyed recognize similar growth patterns, as described in their spiritual and philosophical traditions. Let us examine a few.
Epictetus, a famous Roman stoic philosopher, stated, "It is not the thing itself, but by the view men take of it that disturbs them."

Nietzsche, the famous German philosopher, said, "If we know why, we can endure any how."

Adm. James Stockdale, a Medal of Honor recipient and prisoner of the infamous North Vietnamese "Hanoi Hilton," spent seven-plus years in captivity. His goal was to endure and "return with honor," which he did using similar insights.

Spiritual traditions, such as the account of Job in the Bible's Old Testament, also recount choices in performing activities requiring "a lot of mental focus or a high level of dexterity."

When considering the importance of safety, "you have to think about what it is," Litton said.

"In my mind, safety is not really an entity," he said. "I can't take safety and put it in a box. I can't let you touch it, feel it, see it. To me, safety is really an outcome."

DOD is well-acquainted with getting safe outcomes, Litton noted, through proper planning, training, equipping and providing personal protective equipment necessary.

"You plan, you identify the risks, you mitigate any high risks you may identify and you accomplish the task," he said. "We do that very well on active duty.

"We've taken accidents and mishaps from about a total of 600 in 2005 all the way down to 311 in fiscal year 2013," he continued, "so we've cut that number almost in half."

Litton emphasized applying safety principles learned and employed on duty to situations off duty.

"We do it well on duty, but off duty, sometimes we forget that training that we've had. We just do things that aren't smart," he said.

"So what I want to encourage all the service members to do is take that great risk training we've given you - applied to that everyday job - and do it off duty as well," Litton added.

Applying these risk principles off-duty, he said, may prevent mishaps and fatalities that need not happen.

Litton provided an example of what can happen when the application of risk principles aren't applied off duty.

"We had a service member who went out with his buddy to go enjoy a day on the river," he said. "There were two of them. They tried to put two people into a one-man kayak. That doesn't make a lot of sense.

"Also neither one of them had a life jacket or personal floatation device," Litton continued. "On duty, we wouldn't take two people and put them in a single-seat fighter cockpit. It just doesn't make sense."

One service member, Litton said, drowned during this particular incident. "We lost a valuable team member because they didn't apply what we taught them on the job off the job," he said.

Litton encourages service members to seek additional information of safety and risk mitigation activities - beginning at their units.

"Almost all commanders and supervisors are trained in safety and risk mitigation activities," he said. "Almost all units will have a safety officer or a safety NCO."

Additionally, he said, each service has a website and safety center to provide information on travel safety.

"Again, we want to reiterate that safety is everyone's responsibility," Litton said. "We look to the leader to set a command climate that is conducive to safe operations."

It also gives people the freedom to speak up, he said, when they see something that doesn't look or feel right.

"Everyone from the youngest enlisted person to the general officer has the responsibility to speak up when they see something they believe doesn't look right," Litton said.