30. Understanding posttraumatic growth, with Dr. Richard Tedeschi

Episode 30 with Dr. Richard Tedeschi.

Posttraumatic growth is not only the topic of today’s podcast, it is also the process that birthed the Looking at Lyme podcast. Sarah explores posttraumatic growth with Dr. Richard Tedeschi, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, faculty member of the Posttraumatic Research Group and distinguished chair of the Boulder Crest Institute for Posttraumatic Growth.

Dr. Tedeschi and his colleague, Dr. Lawrence Calhoun, have been working in this area since the 1980s and have developed the academic theory of posttraumatic growth. As psychologists, the pair were interested in finding out what makes people wise, and interviewed people who had experienced either physical disability or bereavement. They found that these individuals had gained wisdom and experienced positive changes in their lives in the aftermath of their traumas. A decade into this work, they coined the term posttraumatic growth to describe this process.

On earthquakes and rebuilding

An integral part of their work on trauma relates to a person’s core beliefs or basic assumptions they have about life. Dr. Tedeschi explains that traumatic events occur when circumstances cause us to question our core beliefs about many aspects of our lives such as who we are, what kind of lives we’re living and our ideas of the future. Using the metaphor of an earthquake, he explains that trauma requires us to rebuild our lives in new ways, possibly even better or stronger in some ways than before.

In his own practice, Dr. Tedeschi sees patients with Lyme disease and chronic pain, who are struggling to cope. He illustrates that often, people are more distressed by life situations that shake the foundation of their core beliefs than ones that may seem more devastating but align with their beliefs. He cites the example of a patient who found it much harder to deal with an unexpected divorce and loss of family life than it was to deal with the news of his terminal cancer. For his patient, the divorce challenged his core beliefs whereas the idea of dying did not. He notes that, although traumatic situations vary from person to person, the process and outcomes of posttraumatic growth are quite similar, and can be viewed from the perspective of five different areas of growth.

“We have found that the process of growth and the outcomes of posttraumatic growth are very similar no matter what is the trigger for it. Now that’s not to say that everybody shows posttraumatic growth is very much the same because their versions of posttraumatic growth may differ from person to person…the traumatic event is traumatic because it shakes up the core belief system and sets people on kind of a course of change.”

Dr. Richard Tedeschi

Areas of posttraumatic growth

Dr. Tedeschi and Dr. Calhoun identified five different areas of posttraumatic growth: relationships; appreciation of life; greater sense of personal strength; new possibilities; and spiritual and existential change. Dr. Tedeschi describes each of these areas and gives us examples to deepen our understanding of them.

Relationships can be an area of growth for those who are able to find and reach out to supportive people in their lives and experience closer connections and a deepening of those relationships. Others may experience a heightened appreciation for things in their lives that they previously took for granted. A third area of growth is that of personal strength in the realization of challenges they have survived or overcome. Growth may also occur in the form of exploring new possibilities in response to limitations brought on by trauma. Dr. Tedeschi describes a fifth area of posttraumatic growth as “spiritual and existential change” in which people explore the big questions of life, like their life purpose. 

If posttraumatic growth occurs when a person’s core belief system is challenged, what is the role of resiliency? Dr. Tedeschi explains that people who have core belief systems that enable them to tolerate certain situations may not be challenged in the way others are, and therefore may not experience posttraumatic growth. Those who have had their core beliefs challenged, and work through those challenges, develop resiliency. 

“There are ways that you can take this experience and make something of it that’s meaningful or purposeful, and when you find these ways, it really opens up a new chapter in life.”

Dr. Richard Tedeschi

Deeper dive

For those who want to dive more deeply into the subject, Dr. Tedeschi refers listeners to several resources such as the Posttraumatic Workbook that he and Dr. Bret Moore have written to guide people through the process.

He also works with the Boulder Crest Foundation in Virginia which has posttraumatic growth programs and a plethora of resources such as videos and written material to explore. Another helpful resource co-authored by Dr. Tedeschi is a book called Transformed by Trauma, in which people’s stories of transformation are the backdrop that guides the reader through the transformation process.  

Making it meaningful

An important goal of Dr. Tedeschi’s work is to help people through the process of posttraumatic growth in ways that not only help themselves, but empower them to serve others. People are encouraged to take what they have learned and bring it into the world, either in their personal lives or publicly, working with organizations or even founding an organization. Moving forward in this way not only brings purpose and meaning, it helps others who may be dealing with similar struggles and challenges.

In closing, Dr. Tedeschi reflects on the restrictions people are experiencing due to the pandemic as a window into life as usual for many people with chronic illness. Thank you Dr. Tedeschi for showing us that we can not only grow in the aftermath of trauma, we can also draw on our experiences to bring positive change into the world.

Resources

Episode 30 with Dr. Richard Tedeschi.

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