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Understanding Post-traumatic Growth

When trauma strikes, it has the power to turn your world upside down and shatter your trust in everything you believe to be true. But alongside the suffering, something more positive may also be taking root. Miriam Akhtar, author of #WhatIs Post-traumatic Growth, explains.

by Psychologies

Trauma takes many diverse forms from accidents to bereavement, cyberstalking to divorce and beyond but what they have in common is that they can act as a catalyst for personal growth. It seems to be true that what doesn’t kill you really can make you stronger. On the other side of trauma people notice 3 types of positive change – change in themselves, their relationships and their philosophy of life. And while the changes may be slow in coming they are no less substantial for it. Trauma doesn’t only change you, it can transform you. 

It is normal and natural to experience some post-traumatic stress in the wake of a devastating experience as you try and deal with what’s happened. Symptoms include flashbacks, hyperarousal, negative moods and avoidance of anything associated with the trauma. It’s this struggle with the traumatic experience which can act as the engine of post-traumatic growth. Trauma shatters our assumptions about the world as a safe, benevolent and predictable place. It is this breakdown which can lead to a break through – post-traumatic growth happens by engaging with the new painful reality and the process of rebuilding our internal world shifts the way we view life and ourselves. Finding a way to accept that misfortune has happened helps you rise above the trauma. Prof Stephen Joseph, one of the leading researchers in the field, uses the metaphor of a broken vase to explain the ways in which we react to adversity. Imagine life as a lovely porcelain vase that smashes into pieces when a crisis occurs. If you pick up the fragments and stick them back together life will look the same but be infinitely more fragile and vulnerable to breaking down again. This is the process of assimilation. If on the other hand you take the pieces and create something new out of them such as a beautiful mosaic, you’ll have made something new and valuable out of the adversity. This is accommodation, the alchemy which transforms the disruption and distress into post-traumatic growth. Making meaning out of the suffering is a key stage in the journey to post-traumatic growth. Early on this may take the form of brooding about the causes of the trauma asking ‘why me?’ or trying to figure out the crucial elements that sparked the crisis. Over time, however, the rumination can shift to become more deliberate and constructive, taking stock of life, examining the self and searching for something positive to take out of the most negative of life events. This, in turn, can lead to a renewed sense of purpose in life.

The 5 gains of post-traumatic growth

Greater personal strength: Dealing with adversity can consume every last ounce of energy but at the same time it may also be strengthening you. Having gone through one trying situation can equip you for future difficult events. You find out what you’re really capable of. Trauma survivors talk about feeling more alive, open and authentic. They gain a deeper understanding of themselves and feel more confident and mature in themselves. They’re more empathetic and may turn into a shoulder to lean on for others going through the dark side of life.

Closer, more meaningful relationships: Trauma is just as much a test of our relationships and it’s disappointing to find that some friends aren’t there for you in the way you would have liked; sometimes it can be because people don’t feel able to face up to what you have gone through or to accept a change in the dynamic of your relationship with them. You certainly find out who your true friends are and those relationships grow stronger and warmer. You may be pleasantly surprised at unexpected kindnesses, even from strangers and discover a supportive community online or in self-help groups of people who’ve been through similar experiences.

A fresh appreciation for life: Life-threatening scenarios such as a diagnosis of serious illness can stop you from taking life for granted. Suffering a loss of some kind can also make you grateful for what you still have left. Crisis is the wake-up call to remind us of how precious our time on the planet is and reflect on how to make the best use of that time. Often this leads to a fresh appreciation, not only of life itself but also for the people who are precious to us.

New priorities and possibilities: Trauma acts as a turning point. No surprise then that as life changes, so do your priorities. You may want to spend more time on what’s important to you, whether that’s with family and friends, helping people in need or ensuring you get more down time to just ‘be’. You may also be drawn to a new purpose in life that sees you making a fresh start.

Spiritual growth: Reflecting on the big questions such as the meaning of life, what happens when we die and whether there is a God is a normal consequence of trauma. Developing or deepening a faith is one of the outcomes of going through the ‘long, dark night of the soul’. This may take the form of prayer and meditation or finding comfort either in the religion of childhood or a new faith.

The body-mind connection: Post-traumatic growth is holistic with lesser-known benefits for the body as well as mind and spirit. A close call can be the prompt to stop taking your physical health for granted and to handle the body with greater care. Investing in health behaviours such as regular exercise and a green smoothie habit can help your body to surpass previous levels of physical functioning, which will also have positive consequences for your mood.

The 'How to' of Post-traumatic Growth

Telling your story: Humans are sense-making creatures. We construct stories in the search for meaning and to generate a new narrative for when trauma takes away the picture of how we expected life to be. Trying to put the experience into words, either to a trusted person such as a therapist or close friend or by journalling about it, can be a significant step to processing it and moving forward.

Expressive writing: This is a therapy developed by Prof James Pennebaker. It involves writing about the trauma, what it meant and the feelings it generated in short sessions over 4 consecutive days. Although people may feel upset during the process, later on they often experience an improvement in psychological well-being and physical health. The ultimate gift? Perhaps the most significant gain from adversity is that it can open the door to a deeper happiness. The Ancient Greeks called it Eudaimonia but the modern definition is something akin to the fulfilment that comes from living a life of meaning. There may be no going back after adversity but after the endings come new beginnings. The silver lining to trauma is that it strips away the superficialities to reveal what’s really important to you and gives you a second chance to build a life that is true to the new you.

#WhatIs Post-traumatic Growth by Miriam Akhtar is availiable now (Watkins,£7.99).

Photograph: iStock

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