Trauma can be immensely painful, often leaving deep emotional and psychological scars long after the stressful experience has passed. But can there be a silver lining?
In recent years, psychologists have become increasingly interested in the positive life changes that accompany highly stressful life events, such as being diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness, losing a loved one, or sexual assault or the very recent one the Westgate terror attack in Kenya. This phenomenon has been referred to as post traumatic growth, and researchers have discovered five particular areas of growth that often spring from adversity:
- interpersonal relationships
- the identification of new possibilities for one’s life
- personal strength
- appreciation of life
A possible impact of growth in these domains is heightened creativity. Indeed, some of the most eminent creators of all time have noted overcoming adversity, using their negative experiences to inspire and motivate their work. Systematic studies have also shown a high dominance of harsh early life events (e.g., early parental loss), psychological disorders (particularly among artists), and physical illness among eminent creators.
Most people tend to cope with stress through increased creative engagement. Victims of trauma will mostly have changes in interpersonal relationships and in the perception of new possibilities for one’s life both led to increased self-perceptions of creative growth.
The impact of perceiving new possibilities for one’s life was not surprising considering that this area of post traumatic growth has been linked to openness to experience, which is a strong predictor of creative engagement and achievement. This increased openness to experience may have caused trauma survivors to think more creatively about future opportunities for growth. In his book When Walls Become Doorways: Creativity and the Transforming Illness, Tobi Zausner describes her qualitative analysis of the biographies of eminent painters who suffered from physical illnesses. Her analysis reveals that their illness led to the creation of new possibilities for their art by breaking old habits, provoking disequilibrium, and forcing them to come up with alternative pathways to reach their creative goals.
Clearly, there are individual differences in the extent to which trauma leads to creativity. Most of the times trauma does cause stress and despair in fact 1 in about 5 people will have that creative drive. An important future line of research would be to see which environmental and personal factors explain who turns adversity into creative growth.
These findings are also in line with Assumptive World Theory, which argues that adverse experiences can act as a “psychologically seismic event,” capable of shaking up one’s deeply held beliefs about oneself and the world. According to the theory, people who experience seismic traumatic events proceed to form new beliefs by engaging in cognitive processing, such as contemplation and reflection, through which growth and wisdom as well as depreciation can occur.
Let’s be clear: these results do not suggest that adversity is necessary for creativity. There are so many different triggers that can broaden our minds, inspire, and motivate, including any unusual and unexpected event. Nevertheless, these findings are important, considering that most people will unfortunately experience at least one adverse life event at some point in their lives. The silver lining is that these individuals can use their traumatic experiences to heal, grow, and flourish creatively.