In 1995, Lawrence Calhoun, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, helped coin the term "post-traumatic growth" (PTG) for this phenomenon. "It's not just about being resilient," he says. "Resilience is when you get punched, stagger and then jump right back up. Post-traumatic growth is different — when you stand back up, you are transformed."
Like its more well-known sibling condition, post-traumatic stress disorder, PTG doesn't develop in everyone who experiences a life-changing shock, Calhoun says. "One consistent finding for people who do experience post-traumatic growth is a set of circumstances that 'rock your world.' It causes you to confront questions you hadn't confronted before, or see that understandings you had of the world no longer apply. People think, 'This must have happened for some reason — it doesn't make any damn sense to me, but I need to try to wrestle with it to find some meaning.' "
That struggle can inspire profound and lasting personal growth: After their jolts, some people become more compassionate toward the plight of others, move into new careers, and remake their worldviews and personalities. Their relationships with others grow deeper, and they may seek a stronger spiritual dimension in their lives. The question is, why do some of us crumple in the face of trauma, while others emerge stronger than ever?
From revelation to remarkable change
Not all jolts arrive with the drama of a crashing airliner. For Eva Leivas-Andino, the jolt came one night in 1997 while at the theater with her son, Paolo. As the curtain came down on Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, a play about the writer's imprisonment for homosexuality, Paolo began sobbing uncontrollably. "Paolo got up and disappeared, so I went out to the lobby," says Leivas-Andino, now 70. "When he came back about 10 minutes later, I could tell he'd been crying. He said to me, 'One hundred years and nothing has changed.' "
Leivas-Andino already knew that Paolo, then 28, was gay. He'd revealed that eight years earlier, but it didn't have the effect he'd hoped for. "I wanted it to be out in the open and a point of discussion," he says today. "Instead, it became the elephant in the room."
At the time, Leivas-Andino recalls, "all I could think about was, what will I do with this? What are people going to think of me? I was so horrified and afraid. It was all about me."
But that night the dam burst open. Mother and son went to a restaurant and ordered a bottle of wine; Paolo confessed how desperate and lonely he'd been growing up in the closet in their conservative-minded Cuban American home in Miami. For Leivas-Andino, Paolo's distress revealed something terrible about herself. "I left this child totally alone and abandoned while he was going through this," she says. "I realized that day that I had failed my son."
That painful truth set Leivas-Andino on a new life path. She opened up about Paolo to friends and heard from a neighbor about the YES Institute — a Miami nonprofit that provides education on sexual orientation and youth suicide prevention. Leivas-Andino took a two-day communications course, then volunteered for the group. That led to a full-time job at YES; 15 years later, she's the organization's CFO. Today she marvels at the changes she's gone through. "If none of this had happened," she says, "I'd probably be playing bridge."
"Watching her change has been the most beautiful thing," says Paolo, 43, an actor in Los Angeles. "This has become her life's work and mission."