Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Post Traumatic Growth

Dr Thanh-Tam Pham - 24/07/2022

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)


PTSD is a mental condition that results in emotional and physical reactions in individuals who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event such as a motor vehicle accident, physical or sexual assault, long term abuse, torture, natural disaster, war, death of a loved one…

  1. Physical pain:

PTSD often begins with common physical ailments such as headache, dizziness, fatigue, stomach, digestive issues, breathing difficulties, chest pain, chronic pain…

  1. Intrusive memories:
  2. Recurrent unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
  3. Flashbacks and reliving the traumatic event
  4. Dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
  5. Avoidance:
  6. Avoid thinking and talking about the traumatic event
  7. Avoiding places, activities or people that remind them of the traumatic events
  8. Negative changes in thinking and mood:
  9. Negative thoughts about oneself, other people, or the world.
  10. Hopelessness about the future, feeling emotionally numb and difficulty experiencing positive emotions
  11. Lack of interest in previous enjoyable activities
  12. Changes in physical and emotional reactions:
  13. Self- destructive behaviour such as drinking too much or driving too fast…
  14. Difficulty maintaining close relationships, feeling detached to family and friends
  15. Irritability, angry outbursts, or aggressive behaviour
  16. Overwhelming guilt or shame
  17. Problems in concentrating, sleeping and poor memory


Post- Traumatic Growth

Research has shown that around half of all people experiencing some form of personal growth after traumatic events. Different types of traumas- such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents, physical or sexual abuse, divorce- may lead to significant personal development in the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth (PTG).

Dr Steve Taylor, PhD, studied this transformation through turmoil (TTT) that some human beings can transform so suddenly and radically that they are completely different people living in the same body. People who were addicted to drugs or alcohol are suddenly freed from their craving, people who attempted suicide begin to see life as glorious and meaningful, or people in prison for many years can undergo a spiritual liberation. They often feel a constant sense of well-being and a strong sense of connection to other people, to nature and to the world. They are less materialistic and self-centred, more compassionate, and altruistic and have a strong sense of meaning and purpose with gratitude for life.


Transformation on the battlefield

Research showed that in addition to causing high levels of PTSD, combat can lead to significant levels of Post traumatic growth. 72% of the veterans reported significant growth in at least one of the 5 areas: appreciation of life, relationship with others, new possibilities in life, personal strength, and spiritual changes.

The veterans who had military awakenings all described intense encounter with death either through coming close to death themselves or by witnessing the deaths of other people.


Transformation through incarceration:

Incarceration takes away the sense of identity derived from a job or profession or from roles as spouse or parents. In normal life, these attachments are building blocks of the ego and when taken away, one may feel a terrible sense of loss, failure, and disillusionment. But as the voluntary isolation of monks and nuns shows, the loss of attachments also holds a lot of spiritual potential. The lack of stimulation creates boredom and frustration and often leads to depression and aggression. But for a small number of prisoners, the lack of distractions may have a positive spiritual effect. They may have time to reflect on their lives and to explore their mind. Mihajlov, a professor of Russian literature at Belgrade University, was 7 years in prison in Soviet gulags, described how the loss of freedom could lead to intense awakening experiences: “when a man has got rid of all that ties him, a mysterious thing happens, in the depths of his soul there rises up a mighty force which not only endows his totally exhausted body with incredible powers of resistance.” A person who underwent spiritual transformation amid their deprivation and suffering would surely have a greater sense of survival.

There are parallels between the life of prisoners and that of monks, and the extreme deprivation of prisoners of war and political prisoners to the ascetic way of some practitioners for spiritual growth. When intense deprivation and suffering (whether consciously inflicted or not) strip us of our desires, our attachments, our identity, and extraordinary awakening can occur. 
 The two factors that lead to spiritual changes in incarceration are: solitude and inactivity (leading to self-reflection and self-exploration) and the dissolution of psychological attachments (leading to ego-dissolution). The most important factor is ego-dissolution. In situation of intense stress and turmoil, the ego-self may suddenly give way under pressure. For some, this may lead to a psychological breakdown but for a minority, a latent awakened self emerges, like a phoenix.

One of the lessons that we can learn is that there are millions of people in the world who are physically free to live without restrictions, but their physical freedom doesn’t bring them any contentment or fulfilment because they are trapped inside the cage of the ego. They have negative thinking, oppressed by anxiety and, disturbed by their restless thoughts from their ego. Some prisoners have found an inner well being that makes the deprivation of their external environment seem meaningless. They have found an inner freedom that makes the restrictions on their outer freedom seem trivial.


Transformation through bereavement:

Bereavement is the most common type of severe trauma that human beings experience.

When a person close to us dies, everything changes radically. Suddenly, our world is pervaded by emptiness and loss and our stable sense of self is broken down since our identity is bound up with the person we have lost. In 1986, Stephen Shuchter, psychologist, studied a group of widowers and most of them found they were less affected by trivial worries, and they had become more sensitive, more self-reliant, more open, and more confident and more spiritual in their everyday lives.

Bereavements are usually more shocking and traumatic when deaths are sudden and thus more likely to have an ego-dissolving effect.


Transformation through facing death:

Near death experiences (NDEs) may occur when a person is either close to death (in a coma) or dead in a clinical sense. Typically, people report a feeling of leaving their body and looking down at it from the above, then floating away into space. They feel a tremendous sense of well-being, with feelings of connectedness and love.

Another type of death encounter is when people had a sudden injury or accident or a long-term illness such as cancer. Many people reported that they no longer took life for granted, they valued their relationship more and they live each day to the full and as such, money, success, and status seemed unimportant, and this makes them more resilient.

A few people described their experience of spiritual awakening as the translucent light they perceived and their intense sense of joy and peace. They described the light as brighter and purer than any light on earth but did not blind their eyes and they felt overwhelmed with love and bliss: the light was of pure, unconditioned love and the source of all creation.


Transformation through depression and stress.

When a person wants to kill themselves, it is a sign that their ego has been completely broken down. Their depression and self-hatred have cracked the shell of their ego identity. They have been stripped of everything, all hopes, all self-esteem, all attachments to success or possessions or social roles. A suicidal intention signals a point of surrender, the ego gives up and stops trying and reach the point of acceptance.


Transformation through addiction:

Dr Steve Taylor recalled the stories of a few people who were addicted to drugs and alcohol to the point of oblivion, and they experienced sudden awakenings with sudden cessation of the desire to drink or take drugs. There seemed to be the death of one identity and the birth of another, the death of the ego and replaced by a higher functioning awakened self. The deceased ego carried the person’s addiction, whereas the new self that has been born has no addictions.


Explaining Transformation through Turmoil:

Those transformations are miraculous, and Dr Taylor offers some explanation about them.

Transformation sometimes occurs gradually, but it is most common to occur instantaneously. The person’s ego breaks down or dissolves away, and a new identity emerges in its place.

The old self that carried the trauma dissolved away, and a new self is born, free from trauma.

Some physical ailments such as chronic pain, digestive symptoms can disappear as it is well known that many physical symptoms are psychosomatic that are caused or exacerbated by stress, worry, depression or repression of traumatic experiences.

The most common way in which ego-dissolution can occur is through the breakdown of psychological attachments. Attachment is a mental construct that builds up our sense of identity such as ambitions, beliefs, achievements, appearance, status, jobs, relationships, possessions and so on. As a result, we have lost hopes, beliefs and feel empty, stripped down to nothing, naked and desolate as if we have been destroyed. Instead of having a psychological breakdown there could be paradoxically a spiritual transformation.


Why doesn’t transformation happen to everyone?

Research showed that 47% people experience post-traumatic growth in response to traumatic events. Sudden transformation through turmoil is much rarer, possibly less than 1% of people experience it according to Dr Taylor.

People who have certain personality types such as openness, empathic, intuitive, and creative that is the ego is not as solid and rigid as normal are more likely to experience it.


            Learning from transformation through turmoil:

            We don’t have a choice whether suffering arises in our lives as the Buddha pointed out,        suffering is a part of human life. What we do have a choice is how to respond to suffering. Viktor Frankl who survived Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,”

Simply to be aware that suffering can have some positive effects is beneficial. It may bring us greater courage and resilience when we face with suffering.

            A four steps process of responding to challenges developed by Dr Taylor:

  1. Acknowledge your predicament: avoidance of the reality by drinking or taking drugs is self-defeating. It is uncomfortable at first, but you soon discover new courage and resilience and realize that you’ve underestimate your coping abilities.
  2. Acknowledge your negative thoughts and feelings: feelings of anxiety, anger, and pain.
  3. Explore your inner being: be aware that you are not your thoughts and feelings, but you are an observer watching them.
  4. Accept your predicament and your turmoil: it means let go of the desire to change the situation. Whereas resistance creates duality between us and reality, acceptance creates oneness.


Meditation and spiritual practice:

We can practice insight meditation to be aware of our attachments that cause all of our suffering. We can see the arising and passing away of all physical and mental phenomena and there is nothing to be attached to, and understand the impermanence of life.

Most spiritual traditions emphasize cultivating compassion, empathy and practicing acts of service and kindness. By serving others, we transcend our own self-centered desires and ambitions created by our ego. Practicing altruism can also indirectly help to dissolve our separateness with others and our attachments.







Extraordinary awakenings: when trauma leads to transformation by Dr Steve Taylor, PhD.