So much of what we think we know about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is wrong. As a war veteran diagnosed with this condition, I know it is not a condemnation. Rather, it can be used as a springboard to a happier, more fulfilled life.
Post-traumatic stress does not equate to post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead, it can lead to post-traumatic growth. It did for me, and it can for the estimated 300 million people in the world with PTSD, especially in the psychological wake of Covid and the wars that have been fought all over the globe.
If we want to rebuild ourselves and our economies after this pandemic, it’s time we stop viewing traumatic experiences as a hindrance. Rather, with the right mindset, perspective, and practices, they can be the necessary step towards the beauty of post-traumatic growth and the personal transformation that comes with it.
I’m walking proof of the power of post-traumatic growth. I moved from India to the United States at the age of 13. Soon after that, I got heavily into drugs and alcohol. I descended into a world of self-harm and self-destruction. I even lost two friends to that lifestyle and was on the brink of the abyss myself.
After watching “Black Hawk Down,” I quit using drugs and decided to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, despite scoliosis, flat feet, and a blood disorder that two doctors told me would kill me in boot camp. In 2007, I deployed to Iraq as an infantry non-commissioned officer. One of my jobs was to walk in front of our vehicles looking for bombs before they could be used to kill me and my fellow Marines.
Upon returning home, I struggled with survivor’s guilt, couldn’t handle being in crowds, and was hyper-vigilant of loud noises. As a result of these symptoms, I was diagnosed with PTSD. However, as I came to learn over time, post-traumatic stress is not indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In war, loud noises meant death. Consequently, the brain becomes more alert and wary of such conditions. It’s a perfectly normal response, it’s not a “disorder.” It’s simply the mind’s way of keeping us alive. When we frame natural responses to traumatic events as a disorder, then that narrative becomes internalized and that belief shapes our reality, and ourselves.
My PTSD Became My Growth Engine
My PTSD is my growth engine. As a result of learning to harness, confront, and indeed seek fear, I now run ultra-marathons, climb mountains, sky dive, and scuba dive. I purposefully seek out activities that terrify me. In my mind, fear is no longer a barrier, but a necessary ingredient for personal and spiritual growth.
Richard G. Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina is among those who have been studying “post-traumatic growth” for the past quarter-century. A program that Tedeschi oversees, the Boulder Crest program, has revealed that a regular post-traumatic growth approach to trauma treatment could allow many veterans to lead more connected, purposeful lives.
This is not a new idea; the spiritual importance of suffering is a fundamental tenet of many major religions, from the concept of Dukkha in Hinduism and Buddhism to the crucifixion in Christianity. Using suffering as a path to enlightened states of being is an eternal feature of the human psyche.
Facing Problems Head-On
To trigger post-traumatic growth, we must face our feelings and uncomfortable thoughts head-on. We must embrace them, untangle them, and work through them. Studies show that the greater the levels of post-traumatic stress, the greater the growth, but only in individuals with low levels of “experiential avoidance,” a tendency to avoid feelings, emotions, or experiences.
As one example, we might refer to the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner, describing life after the death of his son: “I am a more sensitive person, a more effective pastor, a more sympathetic counselor because of Aaron’s life and death than I would ever have been without it.”
We need to reframe trauma into a common aspect of the human experience that triggers positive growth. Such moments have the power to instill a new appreciation of life, renewed reflection, personal strength, and spiritual change.
Addressing Widespread PTSD
After the war, my torment didn’t disappear. I just transformed it into an ally. Studies suggest that around 25 percent of the veterans who have served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been diagnosed with PTSD.
Of course, trauma isn’t just reserved for those who have seen war. After Covid, many educational researchers have noticed an uptick in children suffering from the condition.
Fundamentally, we have to understand that post-traumatic growth is not only possible but that it can be taught. By implementing resilience training in schools, and by offering post-traumatic growth training to adults in the workplace, we can work to remove the stigma associated with this condition. The science of post-traumatic growth also needs to be incorporated at a foundational level into the ideologies of health-care systems across the world.
After Covid, war, and just the suffering we experience on a regular basis, this is a message that we desperately need to hear: Trauma can either break you — or build you up into someone better and stronger than before.