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What doesn’t kill us : Stephen Joseph & Post Traumatic Growth

This is the title of this article in the November 2012 edition of the Psychologist, the journal of the British Psychological Society. The article by Stephen Joseph states that adversity and trauma do not always lead to damage and dysfunctionality; they can actually lead to ‘post traumatic growth’ and higher levels of psychological well-being. In coaching we sometimes worry about challenging too much or pushing too hard as it might cause ‘damage’. This new research on post traumatic growth adds a different perspective.

Research into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) began in the 1980s with the research focused on the damage created by trauma. Traumatic episodes are the huge life incidents such as car crashes, natural disasters, abuse, serious illness, bereavement and relationship breakdown. In the 1990s research started to look at how trauma can be a catalyst for positive change and post-traumatic growth.

After experiencing a traumatic event people often reported three positive changes such that relationships were enhanced (e.g. people reported they valued their friends and family more), people change their views of themselves (e.g. people accepted their vulnerabilities and weaknesses more, developing wisdom and gratitude) and they changed their life philosophy (e.g. finding new appreciation and re-evaluating what really matters). Research since the 1990s have found positive growth in people and a 2004 study found that typically 30% to 70% of trauma survivors experienced positive change. As this subject has developed more interest psychologists are realising that post traumatic stress is not always a sign of disorder, it may be part of a normal process to rebuild lives and make sense of such experiences.

If we return to the subject of coaching and challenging coaching this reassures me about the resilience of people. We are more resourceful and resilient than initially assumed. Maybe we can take more challenge than initially thought. Maybe we can use this challenge as an energy and a springboard for growth and development.

I do think that we make assumptions about how much challenge a person can positively handle. This may be based on beliefs we hold about ourselves. Wherver this comes from there is the possibility that we hold people safe. This could be too safe at times.

In chapter 7 of Challenging Coaching we talk about the positive effect of tension and report on some psychological studies which demonstrated that growth takes place with challenge and tension. The Yerkes-Dodson curve is a long standing psychological principle that performance increases with tension to an optimal level and then drops off. Research has shown that resilience increases through exposure to the demands of stressful experiences as people adapt and develop coping mechanisms. Other studies found that intermittent stress with recovery periods leads to stress tolerance and what is described as mental toughness.

A coach can work with a coachee and dynamically and skilfully use tension to build resourcefulness, resilience and mental toughness. Challenging the coachee beyond their comfort zone coupled with support can produce breakthroughs. All of this is with the backdrop that tension can be a positive force for growth.

Clearly we should not expose people to overwhelming stress and trauma for the sake of it, that is ridiculous. But if people can grow after trauma then surely people can grow after challenge.

(The Psychologist article by Stephen Joseph is based on his new book “What doesn’t kill us: The psychology of post traumatic growth” published by Piatkus Little Brown 2012)

What thoughts do you have on tension and post traumatic growth, please click here to visit our Challenging Coaching Linked In group and post your ideas.