We all know that difficult life experiences can often help us to grow, deepen, and learn. Many of the wisest people we know are those who have gone to some very dark and challenging places and returned wiser, clearer, more resilient, more loving, and more spiritual, their suffering seemingly having transformed them. These positive changes after traumatic events are known as posttraumatic growth.
And then we know others who withered from their challenges, becoming smaller, hardened, and embittered. We don’t know all the factors that lead to a breakdown in one person and a breakthrough in another, but research by Ullrich and Lutgendorf offers some clues as to how we can help ourselves to a bit more growth and a little less breakdown.
In a 2002 study, Ullrich and Lutgendorf gave college students who were struggling with a personal trauma the following instructions:
“We would like you to keep a journal of your deepest feelings about this topic over the next month.”
This may sound familiar to us. Many of us keep journals, some of us have been doing so religiously for years.
Ullrich and Lutgendorf found that these students, “reported more physical illness.”
That’s more, not less, physical illness.
They also found that with these students, “posttraumatic growth over time…showed no change.”
Physical illness reports increased. Posttraumatic growth unchanged.
Wait a second. Isn’t journaling supposed to be good for us?
Wait, there’s more.
A second group of students were given the same instructions as the first group, plus they were told, “We are particularly interested in understanding how you tried to make sense of this situation and what you tell yourself…to help you deal with it and…describe how you are trying to understand it”[.]
They were asked to write, and therefore think, about the trauma in a constructive or instructive manner, and to find meaning in it.
These participants “reported increases in positive growth from trauma over time”[.]
So, contrary to what a lot of us, professionals included, might think, spilling your guts by itself won’t do it—it can actually make it worse, since it increases the liklihood you’ll get sick.
The study also concluded that, “The passage of time alone does not seem to facilitate positive growth from a traumatic event.”.
But writing, and possibly sharing in general, about your deepest emotions about a traumatic event plus thinking about it in a way that helps you to understand it, deal with it, and find some meaning in it, leads to positive posttraumatic growth and increases the liklihood of you becoming that wise old granny you’ve always secretly longed to be.