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Meaning, Purpose, and Traumatic Growth

Traumatic Growth:  “Traumatic growth” is one term that has been applied to the positive life change that sometimes comes out of trauma or life crisis.  While the term “resilience” implies a return to earlier levels of functioning, the terms “thriving” and “post-traumatic growth” both suggest the development of something higher and more desirable (Chesler, 2003).  According Chesler, the development of a coherent narrative is an essential element of post-traumatic growth, allowing people to make sense of their experiences and integrate them into conscious memory (Chesler, 2003).

In his interview, psychologist Eduardo Duran spoke at length about the effects of the experience of killing on the post-deployment lives of veterans.  He also spoke of the healing that many veterans in his care—including himself—had experienced.   A Vietnam veteran, Duran told the story of a suicide conference a few years ago, in which participants were discussing the act of asking forgiveness from people they had harmed.  In a group setting, Duran found himself facing one of the other participants, a Vietnamese man.  “I basically looked at him and asked forgiveness for my role in hurting his people.  It was really a profound shift, both for me and for him.  It was a spiritual moment.”

In one review of 39 empirical studies that reported positive change after trauma and adversity—something that the Linley and Joseph called “adversarial growth”—they found adversarial growth to be associated with:

  • Cognitive appraisal variables (the way people's interpretations of events and affect their feelings about those events)
  • Coping through problem-focused acceptance and reinterpretation
  • Optimism
  • Religion
  • Cognitive processing
  • Positive affect (Linley and Joseph, 2004)

Shaw, Joseph, and Linley (2005) found 11 empirical studies that identified connections between religion, spirituality, and post-traumatic growth.  Their review showed them that:

  • Religion and spirituality can help people address the aftermath of trauma
  • Traumatic experiences can affect people's religious or spiritual lives
  • Post-traumatic growth is often associated with positive religious coping, religious openness, willingness to face existential questions, religious participation, and intrinsic “religiousness”

Meaning and Purpose:  As safety is the foundation of effective treatment of trauma, SUDs, and other challenges, the finding of new meaning and purpose is often its crowning achievement.  Although clinicians will have many more concrete tasks to attend to in serving returning veterans, it is also essential to be on the lookout for these moments of grace and transcendence that sometimes arise at unlikely times.

The generation of meaning from adversity has long been a cherished concept in the field of recovery from substance use disorders (Kurtz, 1979;  Kurtz and Ketcham, 1992;  White, 1998).  The history of this field is rooted in partnership with mutual-help recovery groups that:

  • Named addiction as a disease long before science was able to provide the evidence that it now possesses
  • Have successfully harnessed psychological and spiritual growth as effective tools for recovery from what is essentially a neurological challenge
  • Have now become partners with the treatment field in grassroots and nationwide efforts to transform systems of care for people who need recovery (White, Kurtz, and Sanders, 2006;  White, 2007)

Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham characterized a central force in recovery as the “spirituality of imperfection.”  In their words, “The spirituality of imperfection speaks to those who seek meaning in the absurd, peace within the chaos, light within darkness, joy within the suffering—without denying the reality and even the necessity of absurdity, chaos, darkness, and suffering.  This is not a spirituality for the saints or the gods, but for people who suffer from what the philosopher-psychologist William James called ‘torn-to-pieces-hood’” (Kurtz and Ketcham, 1992, p. 2).

Many people in the field of trauma recovery have also recognized the importance of meaning and purpose in the healing of post-trauma effects.  Not the first to articulate this concept, but certainly one of the most eloquent, was Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, the story of his imprisonment in Auschwitz during World War II.  For example, Frankl wrote of a breakthrough that a fellow prisoner had experienced in the process of grieving for his wife:  He found peace when he realized that by surviving he had protected her from the experience of his death (Frankl, 1984).

According to Frankl, even trauma itself can provide a foundation for meaning and purpose.  “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.  It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish” (Frankl, 1984, p. 76).

Silver and Wilson (1996) wrote that “For some veterans, their old view of reality is forever shattered by war trauma, inevitably creating the need to reformulate the existential meaning of life itself as well as their role in it.  Thus, war can alter individuals in many ways, depending on events in the postwar recovery environment.  Some men never come home from war.  Others become more fully human and wiser” (Silver and Wilson, 1996, p. 299).

But to think of new meaning as simply an element in the resolution of the traumatic experience would be to oversimplify the healing from trauma, just as so many tend to oversimplify the experience of trauma.  Sometimes the traumatic experience itself “clears the way” for meaning and purpose that we would not have found otherwise.

According to Janoff-Bulman and Berg (1998), “Survivors commonly experience the terror of a shattered, malevolent world, as well as the gratification of a deeper, more meaningful existence.  They move from perceiving a meaningless universe to creating a meaningful life, and this journey involves a potent and disturbing process of disillusionment.  It is not simply that some trauma survivors cope well and perceive benefits in spite of their losses, but rather that the creation of value and meaning occurs because of their losses, particularly the loss of deeply held illusions.  In the end, survivors often feel both more vulnerable and more appreciative, two states that are fundamentally linked” (Janoff-Bulman and Berg, 1998, p. 35).


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The material on all of the Clinical Pages is taken directly from the draft version of Finding Balance After the War Zone:  Considerations in the Treatment of Post-Deployment Stress Effects, a manual under development for the Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center and Human Priorities.  This draft is copyright © 2008, Pamela Woll.  Reprint permission is universally granted, but attribution is requested.
Click here for References and Other Resources.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the current version of the clinician’s manual draft.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the accompanying booklet for veterans.

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