Strength through Suffering

Strength through Suffering

The saying “that which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” is normally only appreciated well after a traumatic event has passed. The cynic would suggest it’s a made up phrase to make people feel better. To Alliant University PsyD program graduate Megan Hawker, it’s something to investigate.

The mental health condition post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is well documented and occurs when someone has difficulty adjusting and coping with life after experiencing a traumatic event. It’s especially associated with soldiers returning home from battle. A condition that often follows PTSD is far less known and discussed; posttraumatic growth or PTG.

PTG refers to the personal transformation and positive psychological outcomes which can occur as an individual navigates the difficult process of overcoming a traumatic event. In other words, people can and do come out of traumatic experiences much stronger than they were before. This may not come as news to some, but Dr. Hawker’s research findings are fascinating.

Dr. Hawker became aware of PTG after viewing a TED talk while studying to get her PsyD at Alliant’s San Diego campus. As an Iraqi war veteran, having served two deployments, she had experienced PTSD after her first tour. However, she never realized until viewing the TED talk, that she had experienced PTG as well. She asked around and found that her colleagues had never heard of it. In fact, there’s little research on military-related PTG, so she decided to make it the topic of her dissertation. Her research includes qualitative and quantitative data taken from a cross section of military veterans. Interviews were especially insightful into developing the story.

PTG has some similarities to resilience, a much more studied and talked about condition, but PTG runs much deeper. In Dr. Hawker’s words, “resilience describes ‘bending without breaking’, whereas PTG describes ‘breaking and rebuilding’.” Previous research has shown that highly resilient people may not experience a level of distress significant enough to initiate the growth process.

The road to PTG is not easy; it is not the opposite of PTSD. She found that veterans described combat as a painful experience, however, the greater the trauma and intensity, the more growth that followed. Many suffering from PTSD experienced substance abuse, relationship problems, and suicidal thoughts. To experience PTG, veterans had to successfully navigate the depths of PTSD and other trials first.

In the process of recovery, the traumatic event serves as a springboard for individuals to attain a level of functioning which exceeds their pre-trauma level of functioning. Some remarked that having gone through combat made them feel as though they could handle most anything. Veterans also reported developing wisdom and accelerated learning, improvement in relating to others, and a greater appreciation for their friends and loved ones. They described discovering new hobbies, career paths, and their calling in life. Their deployments contributed to their desire to do something meaningful with their lives and perform fulfilling work, including finding new meaning in their military career.

Dr. Hawker’s research shows many positives can come from combat and trauma, but much work needs to be done to support returning troops. The research shows some veterans experiencing post combat stress don’t need a doctor but do need a forum to talk through their feelings with fellow veterans.

Others who do need professional help need to be encouraged to seek it. Finally, the lessons learned from military veterans provide hope to anyone experiencing trauma and its after effects.

Dr. Megan Hawker is an Iraqi war veteran, having served two deployments. After suffering from PTSD, she decided when she completed her service, she would work with veterans. She enrolled in Alliant University’s MFT program in 2008 in Irvine. She was so happy with her education that she enrolled in the PsyD program in 2010 and completed her studies in late 2015 on the San Diego campus. She currently works with homeless veterans as a clinical therapist for Interfaith Community Services in San Diego.