Most of us have or will experience trauma at some point in our lives.
Whether it comes in the form of a personal upheaval – such as a serious injury or illness, victimhood at the hands of another, job loss, or the loss of a loved one – or through witnessing a traumatic event experienced by others, trauma is likely to have a profound and lasting effect on us.
By now, we are all familiar with the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but there is something else that can occur in us as a result of our traumatic experiences.
It’s called ‘Post-Traumatic Growth’, a term coined by two University of North Carolina psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. They use it to describe the benefits that many survivors discover as they recover from a traumatic event, and they maintain that it is actually much more common than PTSD.
In particular, the two researchers found that survivors frequently experienced growth in five key areas: new perspectives on life, appreciation of life, deeper relationships with others, personal growth, and spirituality.
Tedeschi believes that by focusing on only the negative impacts of trauma, psychiatrists and psychologists have stigmatized the experience of trauma, and as a result, many survivors assume they will be permanently damaged. Instead, he believes that the ‘injuries’ of trauma can not only be healed, but that they can lead us to profoundly positive personal outcomes.
Today’s Trauma Psychologists are focusing on teaching and building resilience, both for those recovering from trauma, and also for those who are likely to be exposed to traumatic events in the course of their work, such as army soldiers and first responders.
Strategies for Building Resilience
According to Michaela Haas, journalist and author on resilience, there are 7 key strategies she believes to be especially helpful for building resilience, and for turning trauma into strength:
The most common PTSD treatments, medication and psychotherapy, are only effective for about half of trauma survivors. As a result, the US Army has been experimenting with a number of alternative methods of treatment. One of those in particular is showing very encouraging results – meditation.
Aside from reducing stress, meditation has been shown to actually shrink areas of the brain responsible for fear, anxiety and panic.
2. Finding Meaning
Making meaning out of the trauma is a critical foundation of Post-Traumatic Growth, according to Tedeschi. He believes it is important for trauma survivors to acknowledge their mental suffering, but at the same time begin to reflect on the traumatic event in order to discover the personal ‘why’ behind it.
Self-Compassion and loving kindness practices can help survivors reconnect with the wounded aspects of themselves, and begin the process of letting go of the all-too-common shame and guilt that often follows in the wake of trauma.
A key part of the training for those who have or are likely to experience trauma is encouraging people to let down their guards in order to seek help, reach out to others, and communicate their fears.
Instead of burying the pain, covering it up with a brave face, or suffering it alone and in silence – all of which increase the risk of PTSD – survivors are guided to acknowledge their wounds, and share their suffering with others.
Regularly focusing on those things we are grateful for has been associated with improved mood, greater empathy, better sleep & energy, and fewer medical symptoms. Many studies demonstrate that people who regularly practice being grateful are happier and more content with their lives.
It’s also proving to be one of the most effective practices for building resilience in those recovering from or regularly facing trauma.
6. A Multi-Faceted Approach
With the primary goal being to increase resilience in the face of struggle or adversity, instructors are coming at it from all angles, teaching a well-rounded balance of skills including goal setting, problem solving, assertiveness, and energy management.
People who learn and become practiced with these skills in their everyday lives are better equipped to deal with stress, and to cope more effectively with problems as they arise. They are also more adept at maintaining strong, supportive relationships.
7. Supportive Community
Our level of resilience depends largely on the support of those around us. While recovering and growing from a trauma does require a great deal of inner resources, it also hinges on our connections with others, and the quality of the support we receive from them.