- Michelle Rosenthall
There is nothing that defines trauma better than this quote. When we encounter a traumatic event in our lives, it taints the image we have created of ourselves and the world around us. The initial shock that comes with the traumatic event can be very overwhelming to deal with.
You might even struggle to separate yourself from the event and this can cause you to dwell on it in your mind - wondering where things went wrong. This act of repeatedly thinking about the event is known as rumination. While you may think that dwelling on the event will give you answers, the fact of the matter is that more you think about it the worse you will feel.
As time goes on, depression, anxiety, anger and even sadness are common emotions that you may experience. No one wants to go through such unpleasant feelings so in order to feel better you may engage in unhealthy coping behaviours such as avoidance, usage of alcohol, drugs or other mediums of release.
In essence, overcoming trauma can be very difficult - often taking tremendous amounts of effort and perseverance. But as with any other difficulty we experience in life, a silver lining exists. There is something transformative in the experience of pain that helps us come out stronger and become more resilient in the face of our difficulties.
In the field of Positive Psychology, researchers have coined a term called ‘Post-Traumatic Growth’ (PTG). It can be defined as, “positive changes that occur as a result of going through extremely difficult life experiences.” What this means is that in the long term, traumatic incidents such as losing a loved one, accidents or even divorce can be beneficial for your well-being. Research shows that once the initial pain subsides, people report feeling more resilient and appreciative of different things in life. They experience growth in their personal lives, improved relationships, more compassion and gratitude for others, greater spiritual connection, and love for oneself.
All in all, studies show that when a traumatic event occurs, almost half of the individuals who experience trauma are likely to experience Post Traumatic Growth as a by-product.
Resilience refers to the ability to bounce back from adversity. It’s easy to confuse PTG with resilience, however some differences do exist. When a person who is already resilient encounters trauma, they may not experience PTG because the event is less likely to cause severe damage to their lives and completely shake their core beliefs. On the other hand, less resilient individuals are more likely to experience high levels of distress following a traumatic event because they are not equipped with the right resources to deal with the situation. They may do their best to decode the traumatic event - questioning what went wrong and what this now means for them.
Another distinctive point to note here is that while resilience helps us become more tolerant of the pain, PTG enables us to use this knowledge of pain to bring positive changes in our lives. It constitutes the changes that take place when a person struggles with bouncing back, experiences psychological difficulties along the way and then eventually discovers a sense of purpose in their difficulties. They begin to look beyond the struggle and use it as an opportunity to better themselves. Simply put, PTG is not something that can be achieved easily, rather it takes time, dedication and a huge amount of effort.
While PTG is meant to create positive life changes, researchers have identified ‘Post-Traumatic Depreciation’ (PTD), which creates negative changes that take place in a person’s life - leading to decreased appreciation, lack of self-worth, and dysfunctional relationships. While trauma can change your life for the better, for some, it can be very damaging. When this happens, a person may struggle to get their life back on track and they may ultimately end up getting stuck in a vicious cycle that can be hard to break out of.
Research shows that PTG and PTD can coexist. Studies were conducted investigating individuals' responses to traumatic events. The results suggest that individuals who experience high amounts of stress may experience both positive and negative changes as a result of the traumatic event. Moreover, factors that predict growth are different from those that predict depreciation. Hence, the presence of one does not mean the absence of another. For example, problem focused and emotion focused coping lead to post traumatic growth; and negative emotions, as well as, avoidance focused coping contribute to worsening or depreciation following the traumatic event.
It’s important to also keep in mind that PTG does not directly result from trauma. Rather, it is associated with the process of changes and struggles an individual goes through because of the trauma. Qualitative data suggests that individuals who have experienced trauma and growth thereafter consider many things as important to their struggle. These involve - having relationships where they felt valued, cared for and a sense of belonging. People report feeling supported by a friend, family member, partner, spiritual mentor or even their therapist. This goes to show that when you have a supportive group of people in your life it can not only aid in recovery but also foster post-traumatic growth.
When striving to achieve post-traumatic growth, it’s important to not negate the effects of trauma. Many individuals who experience trauma don’t necessarily experience post-traumatic growth in the aftermath. Moreover, even in the presence of post-traumatic growth there lies distress. Fostering post-traumatic growth doesn’t mean that you ignore all the distress you have experienced so far. It is about acknowledging the pain and realising that it doesn’t define who you are or the person you strive to be. It means having a sense of hope that you can not only survive this difficult time but also have the ability to create positive long-lasting changes in your life. Simply put, it is not the traumatic event that leads to post-traumatic growth, rather the changes - be it positive or negative - that take place within the individual that plays a significant role.
Have you ever paid attention to how people react to a crisis? Oftentimes, when a crisis occurs within a community (such as a war or natural calamity), people tend to become more interconnected. You hear stories and read the news articles about people donating food, offering shelter and protecting animals. The research highlights the fact that when in crisis, people become more altruistic, friendly and cooperative. The typical need to compete with one another gets replaced with a shared sense of purpose and effort. This is what we call ‘Post-Traumatic Growth on a community level. Despite suffering, people set aside all their differences and become one. It drives people within the community to develop common coping strategies so that each person feels that they are cared for. This level of support helps each person in the community become more resilient and strong in the face of adversities.
We can even hope to observe this kind community level growth with the global pandemic the world is currently grappling with. While we may not be able to predict PTG, we can certainly see glimpses of it happening once things begin to settle down. While for some, this time may not be very traumatic, for many others, the health crisis is something that they never would have thought about experiencing in their lifetime. This revelation can be shocking and difficult to come to terms with. If this is something many people are going through, then the health crisis might prove to be a turning point in the lives of many people. What this means is that once the initial shock diminishes, in the long run, the pandemic can have beneficial effects.
If you are someone who feels anxious about how things are going to be once life goes back to the way it was, then it might be helpful to check-in with yourself and think about all the positive changes that have taken place in your life.
In order to better understand whether the state of PTG has been achieved, researchers look for positive responses in one of the five key areas of life. We will discuss these key areas in light of the pandemic and how it has influenced the way you live your life.
We’re able to experience a sense of closeness towards friends, family members and the community as a whole. We appreciate the kind of relationships we have and invest greater time and energy into strengthening them. Amidst this difficult time, you may have experienced kindness and compassion not only from your loved ones, but also from your friends and neighbours.
To reflect on all that you’ve gained within this domain, it might be helpful to think about who you feel closest to right now and what all you can do to maintain this level of closeness once things go back to the way they were. Maybe you’ve gotten closer to your neighbour or the person living. You can also think about how social distancing has helped improve your relationship with the people in your community.
We’re able to look at challenges as a way to grow and feel more motivated to work towards achieving our goals. Considering the drastic changes that have taken place, there are many opportunities that were previously available but may no longer hold significance in your life. However, while certain opportunities have come to an end, there are many others that have now come to light.
To embrace this new way of life and make the most of new possibilities you can consider the different things you have learnt about yourself during this time. Maybe you realised that you feel a sense of accomplishment doing household chores such as cleaning or cooking. You can even think about whether there are any personal or professional projects you were previously unable to pick up but can revisit now.
While we’re continuously being challenged by different situations in life, we are still able to recognise the fact that we have the ability to bounce back from adversity. Having this knowledge helps us become confident and ready to face future challenges thrown our way.
In light of all that’s going on, it might be helpful for you to recognise all the strengths you have displayed in order to help others. Maybe you’ve cultivated the strength of being patient or empathetic towards those who are suffering. You can even think about the different changes you’ve noticed within yourself compared to a few months ago.
Trauma often makes you question the purpose of your existence or what might be the true meaning of life. However, despite difficult circumstances, you’re able to build a deeper connection with yourself and get a better understanding of all that you’re capable of achieving.
As you may now work towards establishing a deeper spiritual connection, it might be helpful for you to think about how you appreciate life differently. Maybe you’ve established a deeper connection with God or the universe. You can even think about how this deeper connection has impacted the way you perceive your goals and aspirations in life.
Instead of running on auto-pilot, you’re able to stop and appreciate the little things life has to offer. You’re able to find joy in even mundane activities and don’t take anything in your life for granted anymore.
In a post-pandemic world, as you take a moment to build appreciation, you might want to think about how you’ve expressed gratitude towards the people who have worked hard on keeping everyone safe. You can even reflect on the small things you’ve now come to appreciate - be it quality time with the family or even the opportunity to prioritise your self-care.
While life may never return back to the way it previously was, embracing all the new possibilities and choosing to find the silver lining with this experience can help you achieve PTG. You may still experience grief as a result of the pandemic, however when you reach the state of post-traumatic growth, it enables you to let go of the past and look forward towards a new beginning.
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