Triumphing Over Trauma

Leah Younger explores the budding science of post-traumatic growth

February 20, 2013

Leah Younger, a summa cum laude graduate of Touro’s Lander College of Arts & Sciences (LAS) in Brooklyn who’s currently pursuing her Psy.D at Pace University and working with patients at the Queen’s Children’s Psychiatric Center, is basing her dissertation around this concept. After previously spending time in more clinical environments, the 23-year-old Brooklynite “wanted to look at the other end of the spectrum, those that have experienced trauma but are psychologically healthy, to see the natural development of PTG.”

Still, PTG has met with skepticism from the larger clinical community, which itself is one of Younger’s primary impetus’ to better frame the idea en route to her doctorate. “Most researchers automatically jump to what we call the ‘deficit model’, where the focus is on an individual’s weakness” she explains. “Something happened, therefore something must be wrong. There’s definitely that subtle resistance [toward PTG], that it’s too fluffy, it’s too pseudo-psychology. That’s another motivation of mine, to kind of ground it in empirical science.”

In fact, Younger suggests that for some PTG is only effective once a patient or victim of abuse has undergone more traditional methods of dealing with their personal history. “It’s a tricky line, because you never want to pressure someone to grow from their trauma, or feel uncomfortable or guilty if they’re not adopting that approach,” she says. “But you want to leave the door open if someone does say, ‘I want something good to come out of it,’.”

To Younger, studying PTG is an evolving collaboration between applied science and personal philosophy, and an approach that many in the field have personal experience with. “A colleague of mine suffered from severe burns when she was younger, and I think she pretty much exemplifies this topic,” she shares. “Post-traumatic growth doesn’t nullify the potential of post-traumatic stress. They can exist at the same time, and she definitely has experienced negative symptomatic reactions, but it didn’t prevent her from learning from the experience, growing from it and becoming a better person. And she’s in the field today, making significant professional contributions and is a very healthy, functional individual.”

The most common guideposts individuals seek out for ongoing hope and optimism range from spirituality and peer-support to a good, old-fashioned sense of humor. “A lot of what my study is going to look at are the variables that contribute, cause or correlate,” she explains. “I’m not exactly sure what the research is going to show. [In] my own experience, I’ve observed psychologically healthy religious people that believe everything happens for a reason, that whatever happens has some kind of good, and we have to find that good. It’s my hypothesis that those people will experience greater levels of Post-Traumatic Growth, as opposed to people who feel like they’re at nature’s whim and they have no control and are at the world’s mercy.”

Regardless of one’s personal path to recovery and, furthermore, positivity, Younger assures that “Everyone has the capability to work through what they’ve gone through,” adding, “That’s my role, to guide patients through their experiences and help them manage their negative reactions so they can be fully functional.” “I know what I want to do,” Younger beams. “I have a goal. I wake up in the morning, and I’m happy to help other people.”