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Kevlar for the Mind: War's trauma may lead to improved quality of life

Jun. 27, 2014 - 12:45PM   |  
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You’ve likely heard the adages, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and, “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

Like most adages, they’ve become part of our collective cultural history because they’re grounded in truth. Virtually every one of us can point to a time in our lives when one or both of these adages applied to what we were going through.

And there is likely no better opportunity for these proverbs to come to life than in the veterans who have been exposed to horrific experiences during combat.

Discussions about the psychological aftermath of war generally revolve around concepts of illness, despair and emotional turmoil. That’s understandable if you consider that the fields of psychology and medicine have narrowly defined the parameters of functioning after trauma.

But while these concepts are relevant for some, they neglect the fact that a significant percentage of veterans do not experience overwhelming negative effects from trauma. In fact, the opposite occurs — some vets benefit from trauma.

“Post-traumatic growth” is a term coined by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s to describe how people grow and become psychologically stronger in the face of adversity.

The growth generally occurs in one or more of five domains.

Some develop new, meaningful relationships or strengthen existing relationships with loved ones. For example, a son grows closer to his estranged dad after seeing his platoon leader (who reminded him of his father) killed on a routine patrol.

Significant life struggles also can open up new possibilities in one’s life. A Marine who suffers a shrapnel wound and eventually loses his leg develops a passion for rock climbing while going through rehab. A person may develop a deeper appreciation for life. An Air Force air crewman who has always focused on getting from point A to point B without any awareness of what was in between gives more thought and attention to the world around him after narrowly escaping injury in an aircraft accident.

Others develop a new sense of personal strength. A soldier who constantly criticized herself for being weak and not standing up for herself becomes more assertive and regularly puts her needs before others after being sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier.

Finally, many experience a spiritual awakening. After witnessing a child die in a roadside bomb blast, a sailor finds comfort and meaning by turning his life over to God.

Post-traumatic growth is by no means universal, but it is not uncommon. Many veterans have experienced a much richer life after suffering incredible hardships.

To learn more, visit the University of North Carolina Charlotte’s Posttraumatic Growth Research Group website at http://ptgi.uncc.edu/

Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq. Email kevlarforthemind@militarytimes.com. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.

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