In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, news coverage has shifted to focus on the storm’s destructive toll and the survivors’ efforts to restore their shattered lives and communities. But there is another side to the story that will go mostly unnoticed: disasters can set the stage for profound personal and societal growth.
In August 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina struck, we were part of a team of researchers collecting data in 10 U.S. cities for a study of community college students. The New Orleans site consisted of mostly young black women, many living in the 9th ward, where some of the worst destruction and trauma would occur. In the midst of the post-Katrina mayhem we realized that we had a rare opportunity. We had pre-disaster data and could control for how survivors were functioning prior to the storm, so we were uniquely positioned to explore the long-term effects of the disaster.
Over the course of more than a decade of research we have uncovered surprising findings about recovery and resilience—including that over 60 percent of the survivors have bounced back to pre-disaster levels of mental health.But perhaps most surprising has been the deep psychological growth that has emerged from the depths of despair.
This possibility of growth was so far from our minds that we did not include a single question about improvement in our first post-Katrina survey. Our gazes had been so tightly fixed on the negative consequences of trauma—like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—that we had neither the mindset nor the tools to detect growth. But our students suggested that we align with the new science of post-traumatic growth (PTG).
Stories of gaining strength through adversity abound in religion, philosophy, poetry and literature. Yet, itis only within the past 20 years that researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun developed the vocabulary and measures to measure PTG. As our study’s lens and time frame expanded, we discovered that more than a third of the survivors reported growth.
One woman who had lost everything and moved to Houston told us, “My whole life changed. Things that used to be important, like going out or making sure my kids had brand name clothes, are not important anymore. Katrina turned me all the way around, it made me look at things differently because it showed me that you can lose everything instantly, not just material things, but life, family, everything that is important to you could have been gone just like that. So now I am on a straight path.”
Particularly when provided support and opportunities to deeply process their traumatic experiences of losing loved ones, homes and neighborhoods, many of the survivors we studied have shown an astonishing capacity to set their lives on more meaningful courses. They have taken professional risks and shed bad habits and relationships and lost their attachment to material things. Instead, they cherish relationships, experience deeper spirituality and feel a sense of gratitude in their everyday lives. In essence, trauma has made them wiser.
How does post-traumatic growth work? Essentially, trauma violates the core of naive assumptions that many of us carry—that the world is controllable and that, if we live our lives well, bad things won’t happen to us or our loved ones.
We are blind to the randomness of events and rarely consider life’s ephemerality. Such mindsets help us to instinctively distance ourselves from others’ suffering and trauma when we witness it and to vastly underestimate our own risk of experiencing such disruption. After a trauma, many survivors struggle in vain to reconstruct these cherished assumptions and to neatly fit their changed lives back into old realities. This approach prevents growth and has been compared to trying to restore a shattered vase—it will never be as seamless or stable as it once was. But those who can wrestle with and reconcile the gap between pre- and post-trauma goals and beliefs stand to grow and create something new.
As we found in our study, such psychological growth is hardly universal. The delicate process of making meaning requires an emotional distance from new traumas and a capacity to step back and reflect that not everyone possesses. Many women were besieged by new crises that magnified earlier assaults and derailed the healing process.
It may seem trivializing and even distasteful to consider trauma as an engine of growth at this moment. But PTG is not the same as irrational optimism. It is the byproduct of heart-wrenching loss and soul-searching crisis. It is a psychological manifestation of the age-old spiritual truth that suffering can make us stronger and better able to cope with life’s inevitable misfortunes.
It can also help save the planet.
The chaos and destabilization in the immediate aftermath of disaster can create openings for new collective identities, values and policies. Although PTG is considered an individual response, disasters also provide a collective inflection point, forcing us to shed our illusions and to take stock of how the punishing effects of hurricanes are magnified by climate change and crumbling infrastructure. Disasters also lay bare how dependent we all are on one another and the government for survival—and that we are not in fact a nation of individuals.
In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein has described how right-leaning politicians manage to commandeer post-disaster instability to introduce policies and practices aimed at privatizing governmental functions, which might not be accepted in more stable times. But these moments can also be positive inflection points that reveal our common humanity and promote uncommon sacrifice and altruism across racial and class lines. Guided by the science of PTG, we can better position ourselves to harness these forces, galvanizing citizens around the urgent need for more adaptive environmental policies.
To date, this connection between individual and collective PTG has not been explored.
The science of PTG remains absent from debates in the broader fields of disaster sociology, disaster planning and policy. Instead community-level research and responses remain mired in the resilience mindset, with the goal of returning shattered communities back to the status quo by restoring the conditions and lifestyles that, in many cases, gave rise to the problems.
Resilience would be a reasonable goal if we lived in a more sustainable and just world, and one that was less interdependent. But climate change is precipitating more disasters, and disasters disproportionately affect disenfranchised communities. Moreover, recovery efforts are often prioritized in ways that magnify rather than redress current inequities. In short, the resilience mindset is imperiling us. It’s time to focus on a growth mentality for a more rational, just and sustainable future.