A silver lining for soldiers?

Trauma is terrible. But it can also bring growth.

It’s well established that trauma experienced by soldiers can lead to anxiety and flashbacks. Now there’s evidence it can also trigger positive personal growth. In a study published earlier this year, Yale researchers found that half of all military veterans reported experiencing “post-traumatic growth.” The number was even higher—72 percent—for veterans who screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If you don’t have something that shakes you up, you’re not going to grow too much,” says Jack Tsai, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale and the lead author of the study. He cautions, however, that too much trauma “can be impairing.”

Veterans who experience post-traumatic growth report stronger relationships, increased spirituality, and a deeper appreciation of life, the study found. To quantify how many veterans have grown from their trauma, which included non-military trauma such as having lived through a natural disaster, Tsai and his fellow researchers surveyed 3,157 veterans who made up a representative sample of all military veterans in the United States.

Two years later, they followed up with 1,838 of the original survey takers. About 60 percent reported having maintained some level of post-traumatic growth. Those who were naturally more altruistic or spiritual, or those who regularly read, were more likely to be among them. “People who read ruminate about their experiences and thoughts,” Tsai explains. 

Tsai says the study is good news. “We always hear about the negative consequences of military service,” he says, “but I like the positive spin of this. A lot of veterans are focused on PTSD, but we’re showing people can have PTSD symptoms and post-traumatic growth.”

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