How to Turn Post-Traumatic Stress into Post-Traumatic Growth

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

When it comes to victims of trauma, there tends to be a bell curve-shaped pattern of response. On one end of the spectrum are those that suffer severe post-traumatic stress, but on the other end are those that use the trauma as an opportunity for meaningful growth. In this episode, Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen weigh in on this phenomenon and provide tips.


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Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen: I'm Tana Amen. Here, we teach you how to win the fight for your brain to defeat anxiety, depression, memory loss, ADHD, and addictions.

Dr Daniel Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we transformed lives for three decades using brain SPECT imaging to better target treatment and natural ways to heal the brain. For more information, visit

Tana Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is also brought to you by BrainMD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceutical products to support the health of your brain and body. For more information, visit Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast.

Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome back. We just finished talking about post-traumatic stress disorder. Now we're going to talk about post-traumatic growth. I was ... I gave five talks last week at the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference. While I was there I attended a lot of other lectures and went to a lecture by Marty Seligman, who is, what most people think of is the Father of Positive Psychology.

Tana Amen: Interesting.

Dr Daniel Amen: He worked a lot with the military and he said, "You have to think of PTSD on a bell shape curve. That people toward one end, maybe 10% of people that experience traumatic events end up with post-traumatic stress disorder, so really have significant psychological problems. Then there's most people, but people don't talk about what happens on the other end of the bell shape curve, that it's actually post-traumatic growth."

Tana Amen: See, I love that idea.

Dr Daniel Amen: That these are people because of the trauma have used it in a way to make their lives significantly better. I actually think of that with you, that you grew up in a very chaotic traumatic situation. Yes, it had negative fallout for you, but you have spent so much of your life helping people who have suffered that you're really a better person and the world is better, because of what you experienced.

Tana Amen: Aw, thank you. Well, I actually love the concept of ... That there's this idea, or possibility that you can grow and become better after trauma, because the idea of being a victim, to be ... I've said this in other podcasts, it's repulsive. I just, I don't like it. It's scary to me and when I get scared I'm not that nice. It's this idea that you can do something. You often make fun of me and you tease me because I still practice karate and I love it. It's my favorite thing learning how to sort of stay strong, and that fighting mentality, and also going on survival weekends with my daughter. It's a mindset. It's not just because I'm crazy, it's because it's ... Don't look at me like that. It's because it's a mindset.

Dr Daniel Amen: No, you qualified it. It's not just because you're crazy, is how you qualified it.

Tana Amen: No, it's a mindset. For me, it is I'm doing something empowering. Does that make sense? I love this idea that I'm doing something empowering. Do I need to? I live in Newport. Probably not, but it's ... I like it, so it makes me feel secure. It makes me feel safer, I like it, and it's learning something new.

Dr Daniel Amen: It's taking the bad thing that happened and turning it into some ... A skill.

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr Daniel Amen: Or a set of skills that not only help you, but help other people.

Tana Amen: Right. I love it. We ended the last podcast that we did on PTSD with a story of Denny. I just want to open it with his actual testimonial, because I sort of did an overview. This is what he said. He came and got scanned and he said, "It's only been a week and I can already feel a difference. Since the scan I've increased my activity level, fitness. I've modified my diet and most importantly, I've maintained for a week the vitamin regiment. I feel sharper in my responses and I am more active in my everyday activities. I feel less pain." We talked about that also in a previous one. "Less pain from inflammation as well. It's been a much needed redirect. I'm very thankful for the support."

Then it goes on to say, "I'm doing great. My energy level and attention span has increased, allowing me to focus me. As a result, I've been more active and outdoors every day. Since I started adjusting my habits, it seems I've gotten more happy and positive. I really want for my brain to have an improvement that can be visible on my skin. That motivation is what's gotten me back to normal." He's a little competitive. He's a Marine, right? He's a little competitive. It was only a week and he ... Once he could see and his response was so cool when he was here. He was like, "I knew it." He was like, "I just knew there was something not right. I knew that there was something missing," and being able to see it made a difference for him. It got him motivated to do it every day.

Dr Daniel Amen: You did on your page, didn't you do ...

Tana Amen: A live chat.

Dr Daniel Amen: A live chat? It's on your page?

Tana Amen: Yeah. What I want to do though, is have something more in depth. I want to have him on as a guest onto our podcast where we can go more in depth.

Dr Daniel Amen: All right. Who develops post-traumatic-

Tana Amen: Growth.

Dr Daniel Amen: Stress disorder, versus post-traumatic growth?

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr Daniel Amen: My goodness, it's 1982. I don't know that you know this, I was an intern at Walter Reed and there was a writing contest with the Baltimore DC Institute for Psychoanalysis, when psychoanalysis was still big. I entered the contest and I wrote an essay called Post-Vietnam Stress Disorder, a metaphor for current and past life events.

Tana Amen: Oh, interesting.

Dr Daniel Amen: What I argued is the people who come out of war with PTSD often went into war-

Tana Amen: Oh.

Dr Daniel Amen: With stress-

Tana Amen: Interesting.

Dr Daniel Amen: And with trauma. Now what I would say is they often went in with vulnerable brains.

Tana Amen: That's fascinating. People can experience the same thing, but if they had more brain reserve, or if they had more purpose even going in, they didn't feel as vulnerable, or they didn't have as much trouble with their brains going in, they came out better.

Dr Daniel Amen: Right. We should talk about brain reserve. Brain reserve is the extra tissue you have to deal with whatever stress comes your way. When you're born, if your mom was good to you when she was having you, and even before, and that's a big if, because a lot of people you go, "Well, did you drink when you were pregnant with her?" They'll go, "Oh, no. As soon as I found out, I stopped." Well-

Tana Amen: Those first two months are critical.

Dr Daniel Amen: The first two months and often if you're drinking-

Tana Amen: You don't discover-

Dr Daniel Amen: Or using drugs you don't discover it for six or eight weeks and when does the brain start forming? Week three.

Tana Amen: The other thing is-

Dr Daniel Amen: There are a lot of people who have less reserve-

Tana Amen: Well, and 50 years ago they didn't think they ... A little bit of alcohol and smoking was that bad.

Dr Daniel Amen: That's right. My mom smoked.

Tana Amen: Mine did too.

Dr Daniel Amen: Which was not a good thing. I'm not bitter, it's just she just didn't know.

Tana Amen: No, it's they just didn't know.

Dr Daniel Amen: Brain reserve is the extra tissue you have to deal with whatever stress comes your way. If your mom was good to herself and good to you when she was pregnant with you, if you were fed well, if they didn't let you play contact sports, if you didn't think of alcohol as a health food. I mean, all of these things can steal your reserve. Because you have to ask yourself, put two people in a tank. Expose them to the same blast at the same angle, the same force. One of them walks away unharmed, the other one's permanently disabled. Why? It has to do with the level of brain function they actually brought into the accident. It's not just brain function, it's the four circles. It's the level of health within the four circles that determines who grows from that experience and who suffers. One of my best examples, I love this child. His name was Chris. He was 12. Now-

Tana Amen: Oh, this is a good story.

Dr Daniel Amen: He wasn't 12, he was 16.

Tana Amen: 16, yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: Yeah. He was born without a left jaw.

Tana Amen: It's an amazing story.

Dr Daniel Amen: It's called Goldenharse, H-A-R-S-E syndrome. I saw him because he started having panic attacks. "Well, why are you having panic attacks?" In order to fix his face, he had had 20 surgeries.

Tana Amen: Oh my gosh.

Dr Daniel Amen: 20 reconstructive surgeries. On the last one, they had problems with the intubation and he started hyperventilating and now whenever he thought of a new surgery he would hyperventilate. They brought him to see me. One session of hypnosis fixed the anxiety. It was really awesome. I kept seeing him, because I had never met a healthier human being in my life.

Tana Amen: That's amazing.

Dr Daniel Amen: His face looks like a railroad yard and he has straight A's in school. He's got a girlfriend. He's president of his class. He's optimistic.

Tana Amen: I love that.

Dr Daniel Amen: He has goals and I'm like-

Tana Amen: They should make a movie about that.

Dr Daniel Amen: I have to understand why is he that way. He was that way because his mom never let his disability-

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr Daniel Amen: Be an excuse for him.

Tana Amen: See, first of all, I hate that word.

Dr Daniel Amen: Not to do his homework, not to take out the trash, not to be kind and nice to people. His mother was massively important. Plus, he was an optimist. His glass was always half full, rather than half empty. He said, "Well, I don't have cancer. I don't have anything that's going to kill me. Yes, I look different, but I think I look pretty good."

Tana Amen: It's like you. You're like that. You're so funny.

Dr Daniel Amen: I look different, but I'm cool. I got you. I mean, but I was like there's no discussion.

Tana Amen: That's awesome.

Dr Daniel Amen: If I'm not good-looking enough-

Tana Amen: That's a great story.

Dr Daniel Amen: I have you.

Tana Amen: The word, "Disability," has always bothered me a little bit. It's like, it's a challenge. It's like why is that a disability? It just bothers me that we do that in society. I mean, we do it because we need something to say. We have to add a label somehow.

Dr Daniel Amen: There's psychological traits of post-traumatic growth and optimism is one. Now, not blind optimism, but optimism is really important. Your attitude, and gratitude, and appreciation, and counting your blessings, versus counting your curses, really important to how you feel. Then there are social influences to post-traumatic growth. His mom. I mean, hugely supportive, but also she's not taking any grief from him. She expects him to perform in a high level way and there are spiritual influences. "I am here for a reason." That his life had meaning and purpose.

Tana Amen: That's awesome. I think that's a great story.

Dr Daniel Amen: I think for you, you have post-traumatic growth. Why do you think so?

Tana Amen: My mom. If I had to narrow it ... I mean, I think there's a lot of reasons. I think by nature-

Dr Daniel Amen: Well, you had good enough brains that I decided to marry you, so that's one. There's some biology.

Tana Amen: Yeah, probably. I mean, I think part of it is maybe there's something hardwired, I'm not 100% sure. I do know that my mom is a fighter. I mean, she's a fighter. Because I know they're just people in my family who didn't end up sort of the same way, even though they share my genes, because they grew up in an environment with parents who weren't. They gave up. They had more of a victim mentality. They were-

Dr Daniel Amen: That's never you.

Tana Amen: Self ... No.

Dr Daniel Amen: You are not a victim and you're a learner.

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr Daniel Amen: You love-

Tana Amen: Love to learn.

Dr Daniel Amen: Learning.

Tana Amen: Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: One of the reasons-

Tana Amen: That was my mom.

Dr Daniel Amen: I fell in love with you is that you're curious, and you explore, and you seek answers.

Tana Amen: My mom was successful. She defied all of the odds. She was a 16 year old runaway. She didn't finish high school and she's wildly successful. It wasn't easy.

Dr Daniel Amen: She has post-traumatic growth too.

Tana Amen: Right. I think that that's a big part of it. I was close to my mom.

Dr Daniel Amen: You've always had a sense of meaning and purpose-

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr Daniel Amen: That life just isn't about you. That you're here on the planet to do something good for a lot of people.

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr Daniel Amen: Stay with us. Thank you for listening to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. Go to iTunes and leave a review and you'll automatically be entered into a drawing to get a free signed copy of The Brain Warrior's Way and The Brain Warrior's Way Cookbook we give away every month.