by Steve Taylor Ph.D: When post-traumatic growth is sudden and dramatic…
Research has found that almost half of people experience some positive after-effects of trauma, such as an enhanced sense of appreciation and meaning, more authentic relationships, and a broader understanding of perspective. PTG occurs typically very gradually. It sometimes takes years to manifest itself. Although it can co-exist with post-traumatic stress, it usually arises once a person’s traumatic symptoms have diminished.
However, over the last 15 years, I have been researching a form of PTG that occurs in a much more dramatic way. This is what I call transformation through turmoil. I also sometimes refer to it as post-traumatic transformation, not just because it usually occurs suddenly but also because it causes a more drastic and deep-rooted change in people.
I summarise my research and provide many cases in my new book Extraordinary Awakenings. For example, at the age of 42, Irene Murray was diagnosed with breast cancer and told that she might only have a few months left to live. Irene reacted to her diagnosis unusually. As she described it,
It was the first time I’d seen death as a reality. I thought, ‘I’m just so lucky to be alive.’ The air was so clean and fresh, and everything I looked at seemed so vibrant and vivid. The trees were so green, and everything was so alive. I became aware of this energy radiating from the trees. I had a tremendous feeling of connectedness.
Irene expected the feeling to fade, but it didn’t. As she put it, “It was really intense for the first few weeks, and it’s remained ever since. It just blew me away. I used to just sit and think, “This is amazing, that things could just fall into place so quickly.’”
Fortunately, Irene’s cancer went into remission, but her sense of appreciation and well-being remained. She felt like a different person and gave up her IT career to retrain as a counselor and therapist. More than anything, she felt a new sense of connection to other people and nature and a new enjoyment of solitude and doing nothing.
A woman called Eve had a similar experience after reaching rock bottom as an alcoholic. After 29 years of addiction, she felt physically and emotionally broken and attempted suicide by walking in front of a coach. Somehow, this encounter with death brought up a shift inside her. Her mother assumed Eve needed a drink to ease her withdrawal symptoms at her parents’ house and gave her a glass of wine. But Eve couldn’t drink it. She was given high doses of sedatives to deal with her withdrawal symptoms, and after a few days, she felt like she had become a new person who was free of addiction.
As she told me, “Mum sat me down in front of a mirror and said, ‘Look at yourself, you’re an alcoholic.’ I looked at myself, and I had no idea who I was. I felt like a completely different person.”
Eve was slightly confused by her transformation at first, but soon it settled down, and she began to feel liberated, with a heightened awareness and an intense sense of connection to the world. She has never felt the urge to drink again and has been sober for ten years.
A New Identity
In my research, I have found that transformation through turmoil (TTT) occurs across a wide range of contexts. I have seen many examples in soldiers, prisoners, bereaved people, addicts, suicidal people, and others who have had close encounters with death. It’s almost as if people take on a new identity. It’s as if their normal identity dissolves away amid intense suffering, and a new, higher-functioning self takes over.
People feel a new sense of gratitude, meaning, and purpose. They often take up new hobbies and careers. They become less materialistic and more altruistic. It is important to note that there is nothing religious about TTT. One could perhaps think of it as a spiritual awakening, although it usually takes place outside the context of any spiritual practices or traditions. Essentially, it’s a psychological experience related to a breakdown of identity.
More specifically, I believe that TTT is related to the dissolution of psychological attachments (such as hopes and ambitions, status, social roles, beliefs, possessions, other people), which sustain our normal sense of identity. The breakdown of attachments and identity is usually a painful experience, but it may allow a new identity to emerge in some people. (See Extraordinary Awakenings for a more detailed explanation.)
Is TTT Self-Deception?
Skeptical observers might argue that TTT is due to self-deception. They might argue that it’s the result of dissociation in response to trauma or that it is due to a desire to believe that painful experiences have been worthwhile and meaningful. However, there are several reasons why I don’t accept this. TTT brings a deep-rooted identity shift that sustains itself indefinitely (up to fifty years in some cases I have investigated). The transformation is much too deep and consequential to be the result of cognitive reframing or self-delusion.
Also, if TTT resulted from dissociation or self-delusion, this would imply a retreat from reality. However, TTT brings an increased engagement with reality, including heightened awareness and connection. Finally, TTT is sometimes a difficult process, with a transitional period that involves confusion and disturbance. These difficulties indeed wouldn’t feature if TTT were the result of self-delusion.
I am therefore convinced that TTT is a real phenomenon. More than anything, it reveals the massive potential and deep resilience within human beings, which we are usually unaware of until we face challenges and crises. Although we are often afraid that crises will break us down, there is a good chance that they will wake us up.