Norwegian researchers asked this question to heart attack survivors (all of them females, between three months to five years after their first heart attack):
“All in all, was there anything positive about experiencing a myocardial infarction?”
Psychologists sometimes refer to this phenomenon as “Post-Traumatic Growth”.
For example, as explained in the journal Psychological Inquiry: (2)
“Post-Traumatic Growth is the experience of positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises.
“Although the term is new, the idea that great good can come from great suffering is ancient.”
Post-Traumatic Growth as a modern concept became popular in the 1990s, measured by an assessment scale called the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI). Drs. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, who pioneered the PTGI in 1999, listed the range of crises that might actually result in positive change for survivors:
“Reports of Post-Traumatic Growth have been found in people who have experienced bereavement, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV infection, cancer, bone marrow transplantation, heart attacks, coping with the medical problems of children, transportation accidents, house fires, sexual assault and sexual abuse, combat, refugee experiences, and being taken hostage.”
- a change in self-perception: survivors report increased self-assurance, self-reliance, and competence in dealing with difficult situations.
- a change in relationships with others: after a traumatic event, people report that their experiences resulted in the rekindling of lost relationships and the acceptance of social support.
- a changed philosophy of life: includes an improved perspective on life, reappraisal of one’s priorities, increased appreciation for one’s existence, and stronger spiritual and religious beliefs.
In short, Tedeschi and Calhoun conclude:
“Perhaps after some time has passed and adaptive mechanisms have successfully led to a reduction in the severity of psychological suffering, individuals may engage in cognitive processing of what has happened in ways that are more deliberate, less automatic, and focused more on repair and accommodation.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Yet this intriguing concept is not universally embraced. At least – not in my house . . .
In yet another study, for example, U.K. researchers also looked at whether heart attack survivors viewed their cardiac experience as being positive or negative. This time, however, they found that only 22% of participants described their new life, post-heart attack, as “better”.
Negative perceptions about living with heart disease, explain the researchers, were not associated with a patient’s personality characteristics or even how severe the diagnosis was, but with day-to-day functional impairment, chest pain or anxiety.(3)
“This commitment is neither a sign of virtue nor of will. I would trade that commitment in one hot second to not have been sick in the first place.”
“Every EDS patient knows that the hardest part of our day is the moment we open our eyes and awaken into the reality of our bodies. The fact is that sometimes I’m in a physical state where I just don’t have it in me to be inspirational.”
“How can cancer be a gift for me and at the same time be lethal for someone else? What kind of gift is that? And if something’s a gift, don’t you have to be grateful to have received it? Well, I’m certainly not grateful to cancer. I’m just not./..“It often seems as if there’s an unspoken expectation to ‘come out of cancer’ a better person. Somehow one is supposed to be miraculously transformed into a new and improved version of one’s former self. The next logical step is that one should ‘thank’ cancer for this. I don’t think so.
“Cancer is NOT a gift.”*
“The first thing I discovered there is that not everyone seems to view this disease with horror or dread. Instead, the only appropriate attitude is upbeat. This requires the denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer.”
- almost 70% considered their diagnosis in negative terms (using descriptions like “a challenge”, the “enemy”, an “irreparable loss”)
- only 28% described breast cancer as providing “something of value”
“Patients who report benefits stemming from their diagnoses may be trying to reduce the threat of the diagnosis, in denial, or reluctant to concede the severity of – or their own stress over – the diagnosis.”
Speaking of “defensive functioning”, we’re also seeing in non-diagnosis-related cases (such as military combat), that chilling statistics seem to fly in the face of the claim that “great good can come from great suffering.”
Nearly three times more Vietnam War veterans in the U.S. have committed suicide, for example, than all of the soldiers killed in combat during that entire war. Since the U.S. Pentagon began closely tracking military suicides in 2001, suicide continues to account for more deaths of American soldiers than in battlefield conflict. And rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – known among previous generations of soldiers as combat fatigue, shell shock or war neurosis – are steadily rising. About 30% of U.S. veterans experienced PTSD following Vietnam, and veterans of modern military combat continue to have similarly high rates of PTSD..
“A lot of people coped with the traumatic experiences in war by throwing themselves into work when they got home.”.
“All self-report measures carry the potential for error, and the Post-Traumatic Growth Index is no exception. Just as we might do when describing all other life experiences, the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory may be certainly prone to some degree of bias as much as reports of any other life experiences.”
(1) Norekvål TM et al. The other side of the coin: perceived positive effects of illness in women following acute myocardial infarction. Eur J Cardiovasc Nurs. 2008 Mar;7(1):80-7. Epub 2007.
(2) Richard G. Tedeschi, Lawrence G. Calhoun. Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory. Volume 15, Issue 1, 2004. DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli1501_01. 1-18
(3) Alison Smith et al. UPBEAT study patients’ perceptions of the effect of coronary heart disease on their lives: A cross-sectional sub-study. International Journal of Nursing Studies. Volume 51, Issue 11, November 2014, Pages 1500–1506.
Q: Have you experienced what you’d consider Post-Traumatic Growth after a health crisis?
- Does surviving a heart attack make you a better person?
- The new country called Heart Disease
- How we adapt after a heart attack may depend on what we believe this diagnosis means
- We survive it – but do we ever recover from a heart attack?
- “I’m not depressed!” – and other ways we deny the stigma of mental illness after a heart attack
- Are you a victim or a survivor?
- A heart patient’s positive attitude: a “crazy, crazy idea”?
- “Smile, Though Your Heart is Aching”: is fake smiling unhealthy?
- * Read Nancy Stordahls’ brave and compelling memoir: Cancer Was Not A Gift And It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person