Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become a common term these days and describes the reality that exposure to trauma causes stress or anxiety to a significant degree.(1) Our cultural understanding is that trauma causes damage, pain, and the rewiring of our neurons so that we respond in ways that are markedly different from how we responded before the trauma.
But what about another response? While PTSD is real and at times debilitating to many people, not everyone who suffers trauma experiences this reaction. Some people seem to push back and become stronger. It is not uncommon to find trauma in the lives of those who work for peace, yet peace-builders seem to experience post-traumatic growth (PTG) more than they experience PTSD. This seems to be particularly true of peace and justice leaders who fight against an injustice that they have experienced personally.* While PTG does not exist at the exclusion of PTSD, and experiencing PTSD does not exclude one from the possibility of ultimate growth, it is important to explore this personal growth for the purpose of encouraging and supporting such growth in the lives of individuals and our communities.
The authors of Quantam Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives outline some preconditions for individual change. The first is that there must be a "state of intense pain or emotional distress, a point of desperation or hitting bottom" in the life of the individual for change to happen.(2) Among the elements that support growth in the individual and society are self-reflection, awareness, and the presence of hope "to affirm the capacity of the human spirit to change, even and especially when things look darkest." (3)
One of the defining characteristics of people who exhibit PTG in the face of trauma is the presence of hope. In her study of survivors of an Ethiopian famine in the late 1990s, researcher Ellen Alexandra Lothe found that "hope … was the most prominent factor in the young Ethiopian adults' resilience, and the only protective factor to which they themselves gave credit."(4)
Lothe followed up on this 1998 finding 10 years later to see "what happens to hope in resilience over time."(5) When re-interviewing the participants she learned that they "found fear of the future to be paralyzing in 1998" and seemed surprised that Lothe had found "hope" to be a theme of their life at that time.(6) Yet, despite not remembering talking about hope 10 years prior and not understanding what they could have had hope for in the midst of such a dire situation, the participants once again began telling Lothe about their hope. It is hope for a better life, they say, that encourages them to continue to find ways to continue to live, have families, and work for change.(7)
A Christian framework
In her article "Post-traumatic growth and the origins of early Christianity," Joanna Collicutt McGrath writes, "The uncertainty of life means that apparently random tragic events can be expected, but there is a paradigm provided by the crucifixion as victory schema for reinterpreting personal tragedy and hardship as significant, benevolent, and an occasion for growth." (8)
Indeed, the idea of pain turning into joy or hope is not uncommon in the Bible, in which we are promised "strength for despair," that our "pain will turn to joy," that there will be dancing instead of despair, and that when we sow seeds of sorrow we will reap songs of joy.(9) In the life of Jesus we see a Messiah who proclaims that "the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them" (Matt. 11:5).
In other words, Jesus offers hope to those for whom life seems hopeless. A Christian understanding of the possibility of this hope for substantial transformation can cause us to push forward to a better life for both ourselves and our communities. Indeed, we are called by Jesus to be agents of that hope for others; we are called to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:34-38).
While our ability to hope is impacted by the past, it is inherently about the future. Therefore, our view of the future has significant impact on what we hope for and how we live out that hope in the here and now. With this in mind, different people will have different views of what constitutes a "hope-filled" future. One could argue that the ability of spirituality in general and Christianity specifically to envision a future full of hope is crucial to seeing growth rather than decay in response to traumatic life events.
One woman's journey towards PTG
The peace activist Leymah Gbowee speaks with raw honesty in her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers.(10) Gbowee suffered various traumas throughout her life: an abusive relationship, living in a war-torn country, hunger, being separated from her family, and more. Yet, ultimately, she is influential in bringing peace to a war zone and offering healing and hope to those around her, specifically to women and child soldiers.
Hope was not her first response to the crisis. At many points in her life she found herself with intense fear and anger.(11) "When you move so quickly from innocence to a world of fear, pain, and loss," she explains, "it's as if the flesh of your heart and mind gets cut away, piece by piece, like slices taken off a ham. Finally, there is nothing left but bone."(12) But she found peace and hope in various ways even in the context of war and trauma. Her first taste of it came from meeting with friends; together they shared their burdens and studied the Bible.(13) Later she was able to enroll in conflict transformation training, and what she learned birthed in her a sense of purpose and hope.(14)
But progress was not a straight line for Gbowee. She found the resolve to leave her abusive husband but then remained because of other obstacles. She faced jealousies among the other women working for peace. She dealt with setbacks and hardships and misunderstandings within her own community. Yet, as she grew in a "crooked" line towards growth out of her trauma, the underlying factor was her hope for a different, better future for both herself and her community.
We see the motivating force of hope for a better life and world in the perseverance of people like Gbowee. As she points out in regards to concepts such as intervening in the wars and conflicts of other nations, there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to peace-making because of the varied and complex contexts of every conflict.(15) Likewise, there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to becoming people who grow and change social structures as a result of the trauma they have experienced. However, the lives and stories of people like Gbowee do indeed give us hope. The psychological study of PTG is still comparatively new to the field, but it promises to help us better understand the importance of envisioning hope for ourselves and others.
*(Author's note: It is essential, when speaking of mental health, to acknowledge that despite seeing patterns or understanding how some people are strengthened by adversity, our grasp of human psychology does not allow us to predict the mental health outcome of any individual in any situation. While some social structures or beliefs may lead to PTG in the lives of peace leaders, it is entirely possible that people in the same context could still experience PTSD by no fault of their own actions or beliefs. It would be irresponsible to suggest that all sorrow, anguish, and trauma can be funneled into a positive (growth) outcome with a standard set of instructions.)
Nicole Morgan is a Sider Scholar alum and recent graduate of Palmer Theological Seminary living near Atlanta, Ga. She blogs at JNicoleMorgan.com.
1. Mayo Clinic Staff, "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)," Mayo Clinic.
2. William R Miller and Janet C'de Baca, Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives (Guilford Press, 2001) as cited in How Does Societal Transformation Happen by Leonard Joy (Quaker Institute for the Future, 2011), 24.
3. Ibid., 25.
4. Joanna Collicutt McGrath, "Post-traumatic growth and the origins of early Christianity," Mental Health, Religion & Culture 9, no. 3 (June 2006): 303.
5. Ellen Alexandra Lothe, "Hope or Horror? A Follow-up Study of Resilience in Survivors from the 1985 Famine in Ethiopia" (At The Interface / Probing The Boundaries 68, September 2010), 167.
6. Ibid., 173-74.
7. Ibid., 174.
8. McGrath, 303.
9. Isaiah 61:3; John 16:20; Psalm 30:10-12; Psalm 126:6
10. Leymah Gbowee, Mighty Be Our Powers (Beast Books, 2013)
11. Ibid., 27.
12. Ibid., 40.
13. Ibid., 49.
14. Ibid., 50.
15. Ibid., 171.