On March 6, 1987, a ferry traveling from England to Belgium capsized, resulting in the death of 193 people. In the months after the disaster, many of the approximately 300 survivors suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including upsetting dreams, anxiety, emotional detachment and numbness, and difficulties with sleep and concentration.
In time, however, some of the survivors reported some surprising positive effects. Three years after the disaster a survey found that, although PTSD was still common (albeit with diminished symptoms), 43% of the survivors said their view of life had changed for the better. They reported that they no longer took life for granted, that they valued their relationships more, that they lived each day to the fullest, that they felt more experienced about life, and so on.
This was one of the first studies of a concept that has become very important in psychology in recent years: post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic growth is the idea that, in the long run, traumatic events and experiences—such as illness, accidents, bereavement, addiction and divorce—can have beneficial effects. Often after the initial shock and pain of a traumatic situation has faded away, people report feeling more appreciative of their lives and sensing a new inner strength and confidence. They feel that their relationships are more intimate and authentic and that they have a new sense of meaning and purpose. They often become less materialistic and more altruistic, more concerned with the well-being of others than with their own success and status. They develop a more philosophical or spiritual attitude to life, with—in the words of Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, two of the pioneers of the theory of post-traumatic growth— a “deeper level of awareness.”
Overall, it appears that nearly half of people who experience such traumatic events are likely to experience post-traumatic growth in the aftermath.
Transformation through Turmoil
However, over the last 15 years, I have been researching a form of PTG that occurs in a much more dramatic way. This is what I call transformation through turmoil.
I summarise my research and provide many cases in my new book Extraordinary Awakenings. For example, at the age of 42, Irene Murray was diagnosed with breast cancer and told that she might only have a few months left to live. Irene reacted to her diagnosis unusually. As she described it,
It was the first time I’d seen death as a reality. I thought, ‘I’m just so lucky to be alive.’ The air was so clean and fresh, and everything I looked at seemed so vibrant and vivid. The trees were so green, and everything was so alive. I became aware of this energy radiating from the trees. I had a tremendous feeling of connectedness.
Irene expected the feeling to fade, but it didn’t. As she put it, “It was really intense for the first few weeks, and it’s remained ever since. It just blew me away. I used to just sit and think, “This is amazing, that things could just fall into place so quickly.’”
Fortunately, Irene’s cancer went into remission, but her sense of appreciation and well-being remained. She felt like a different person and gave up her IT career to retrain as a counselor and therapist. More than anything, she felt a new sense of connection to other people and nature and a new enjoyment of solitude and doing nothing.
A woman called Eve had a similar experience after reaching rock bottom as an alcoholic. After 29 years of addiction, she felt physically and emotionally broken and attempted suicide by walking in front of a coach. Somehow, this encounter with death brought up a shift inside her. Her mother assumed Eve needed a drink to ease her withdrawal symptoms at her parents’ house and gave her a glass of wine. But Eve couldn’t drink it. She was given high doses of sedatives to deal with her withdrawal symptoms, and after a few days, she felt like she had become a new person who was free of addiction.
As she told me, “Mum sat me down in front of a mirror and said, ‘Look at yourself, you’re an alcoholic.’ I looked at myself, and I had no idea who I was. I felt like a completely different person.”
Eve was slightly confused by her transformation at first, but soon it settled down, and she began to feel liberated, with a heightened awareness and an intense sense of connection to the world. She has never felt the urge to drink again and has been sober for ten years.
A New Identity
In my research, I have found that transformation through turmoil (TTT) occurs across a wide range of contexts. I have seen many examples in soldiers, prisoners, bereaved people, addicts, suicidal people, and others who have had close encounters with death. It’s almost as if people take on a new identity. It’s as if their normal identity dissolves away amid intense suffering, and a new, higher-functioning self takes over.
People feel a new sense of gratitude, meaning, and purpose. They often take up new hobbies and careers. They become less materialistic and more altruistic. It is important to note that there is nothing religious about TTT. One could perhaps think of it as a spiritual awakening, although it usually takes place outside the context of any spiritual practices or traditions. Essentially, it’s a psychological experience related to a breakdown of identity.
More specifically, I believe that TTT is related to the dissolution of psychological attachments (such as hopes and ambitions, status, social roles, beliefs, possessions, other people), which sustain our normal sense of identity. The breakdown of attachments and identity is usually a painful experience, but it may allow a new identity to emerge in some people. (See Extraordinary Awakenings for a more detailed explanation.)
Transformation through turmoil is a deep-rooted identity shift that sustains itself indefinitely (up to fifty years in some cases I have investigated). The transformation is much too deep and consequential to be the result of self-delusion. TTT brings an increased engagement with reality, including heightened awareness and connection. It is also sometimes a difficult process, with a transitional period that involves confusion and disturbance. These difficulties indeed wouldn’t feature if TTT were the result of self-delusion.
More than anything, transformation through turmoil reveals the massive potential and deep resilience within human beings, which we are usually unaware of until we face challenges and crises. Although we are often afraid that crises will break us down, there is a good chance that they will wake us up.
On a global level, we are living through a time of unprecedented crisis. We are
suffering from a host of environmental problems, many of which have already reached a critical point: global warming, the mass extinction of other species, water shortage and desertification (leading to mass population movements), the depletion of resources, and
so on. The coronavirus pandemic has caused great devastation, and different strains of the virus may continue to affect us for years to come. These issues are exacerbated by the world’s ever-increasing population, and by political and economic instability.
It is impossible to solve these problems without spiritual transformation. We need to wake up to develop a new relationship to the natural world, and to our planet as a whole. We need to wake up so that we can move beyond group identity and the conflicts it creates. In part, the future existence of our species depends on our transcending distinctions of nationality and religion and sensing the essential oneness and sameness of all human beings. In other words, we need to wake up to survive. As Sri Aurobindo put it, “If humanity is to survive, a radical transformation of human nature is indispensable.”
However, these problems are themselves generating spiritual awakening. We have seen that turmoil and suffering can transform us as individuals and this is no doubt true in a collective sense too. In recent decades, a wave of spiritual awakening has been growing throughout the world. The impetus of wakefulness may be building up in response to the crises we are
Steve Taylor PhD is the author of several best-selling books on spirituality and psychology, including his new book Extraordinary Awakenings: When Trauma Leads to Transformation. He is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. Eckhart Tolle has referred to his work as “an important contribution to the shift in consciousness taking place on our planet.” www.stevenmtaylor.com
— The opinion/s expressed in the article are that of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the policy or position of this magazine.