Trauma can lead to tremendous personal growth over time, with or without the presence of PTSD. The term “post-traumatic growth” was coined by psychologists Tedeschi and Calhoun at the University of North Carolina in the mid-1990s. According to Tedeschi as many as 90% of survivors report at least one aspect of post-traumatic growth, such as:
The great paradox of post-traumatic growth is that with increased strength, there is also increased vulnerability. If we have been vulnerable souls all our lives, and learnt to hide it, this can be a daunting aspect of recovery.
Most people will experience a traumatic event at some time in their lives: cancer, disability through traffic accidents, divorce, sexual abuse, are all high-incidence events. Post-traumatic stress is normal, whereas as few as 30% of people who experience post-traumatic stress will go on to develop the full-blown disorder of PTSD. This condition is treatable with therapy and time, and recovery (or at least remission) is totally do-able.
Many psychologists are trained to track and categorise symptoms. While the diagnosis of a mental health disorder can help, it can sometimes lead the sufferer to believe that their condition is incurable. The weight of stigma in our society adds to this self-diagnosis. Whilst it is true that a traumatic event might be carried in our memories and bodies forever, we can heal and thrive over time. The trick is in figuring out how to do that for ourselves.
Regular practice of meditation and other mindfulness techniques (such as visualisation, affirmations, tai chi and yoga) can literally change our brains. Calming and validating self-compassionate practices can shrink the amygdala that has been enlarged by trauma. Harvard neuroscientist, Sara Lazer has confirmed this with numerous studies into how yoga and meditation affect the brain.
And, as I always say, Buddhist scholars have known about the beneficial effects of mindfulness for thousands of years!
Essentially, before we can grow from trauma, we need to go through it. The stress we experience can become the fuel for growth. Covering up our pain with a smiley face, or remaining silent about it (like people around us might prefer us to do) doesn’t lead us into the place where growth occurs – our vulnerability.
Mindfulness teaches us to sit right inside the discomfort of vulnerability. Additionally, the right friend, mentor or therapist can allow us to work through that vulnerability by offering compassionate listening and a safe healing space for us to express that vulnerability. Accepting that pain will happen to us with trauma, and admitting our own fear and anger can help work through them.
The aftermath of trauma often carries with it overwhelming shame, guilt, confusion and self-blame. The practices of self-compassion as taught by Kristen Neff and Chris Germer, based on traditional loving-kindness meditation have evidence-based studies on their effectiveness. Trained practitioners can gently guide sufferers to reconnect and heal the wounded parts of themselves that trauma or compounding trauma has injured.
Research into positive psychology and gratitude from Harvard, Berkley and other universities are showing up empirical evidence that gratitude has a positive impact on wellbeing. Many traditional religions also teach that gratefulness as a conscious daily practice improves the quality of our lives, no matter what our circumstances.
Making meaning out of what happened to us is an essential part of post-traumatic growth. When we can figure out reasons ‘why it happened’ and ‘why’ to go on living, we reconnect with our fierce passion. We can cope with completely altered circumstances, a new world view and a new way of being. We can also deal better with unexpected change moving forward, even in the face of ongoing family or peer resistance, and other external circumstances and conditions.
Moving forward after a serious crisis not only depends on our own internal resources and genetic predispositions but on the quality of support and interconnection we experience. The best kind of support encourages survivors to focus on their good qualities, but doesn’t silence their pain. Some of us expect to find that kind of support in our families, and when we don’t get it, feel as if we have been left out on a barren hillside to die. Our very survival is threatened.
Resilience is always a team effort. No man is an island. Finding a team who will wait patiently while we recover and cheer us on from the sidelines is as essential to our growth as it is to our survival.