My experience of the past two months leads me to write about a tough subject we’d rather avoid. Trauma such as the loss of a loved one or the diagnosis of serious illness can test us to our very limits – trust me, I know this first hand as I’m certain many of you do too. While it can shatter life as we know it, it may be comforting to know that something more positive may also be happening.
The old adage: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is true.
Traumatic experiences can act as a springboard to personal growth and open the gates to a deeper form of well-being which can lead to transformation. This is what is called post-traumatic growth. It may not be as familiar as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) but it is just as likely to come out of trauma.
Experiencing a short spell of post-traumatic stress is a natural consequence of going through trauma. We tend to think of PTS as being caused by events outside of normal human experience e.g. war, terrorism or natural disasters. The truth is, PTS can be the result of any adversity that overwhelms our ability to cope e.g. divorce, accidents, bankruptcy, bullying or a business failure can trigger the nightmares and flashbacks as our mind and body struggle to deal with the adversity.
However, further down the line (sometimes years later), post-traumatic growth can occur in 3 key areas:
- change in your sense of self
- change in relationships
- change in philosophy of life
Post-traumatic growth is not only about change – people talk about having gained something from the adversity: “I no longer see what life took from me – I can see what it gave me” is how one survivor of a double childhood bereavement stated it.
There are 5 dimensions in post traumatic growth and it is estimated that around 90% of trauma survivors will experience one of these, in due course:
1. Greater personal strength: People often talk about feeling more alive having come through a major stressful event and having a deeper understanding of themselves. They know who they really are and what they want in life. They have grown through the experience – older, wiser and stronger.
2. Closer relationships: Trauma is just as much a test of our relationships as it is of ourselves. You discover who your true friends are and there is a greater sense of authenticity, compassion and warmth. You may encounter the kindness of strangers that is the very hallmark of humanity.
3. New appreciation of life: Adversity can throw your life up in the air and lead you to question everything you believed about life. This can lead to altering your worldview and finding a fresh appreciation for life. This is particularly the case for anyone who’s facing serious illness.
4. New priorities and possibilities: Trauma can act as a turning point with a sense of life ‘before’ and ‘after’ the trauma. As your life changes, so do your priorities. You may feel motivated to do something new and meaningful and ‘abandon’ the old life and your ‘old self’. Trauma brings endings and new beginnings.
5. Spiritual development: Going through trauma can lead to a deepening of spirituality as people emerge from their ‘long, dark night of the soul’ and search for meaning. They may seek solace in the faith of their youth or find themselves drawn to a new one. This spirituality can also take a secular form – a faith in the power of love, or even a deeper connection to nature.
Assimilation or Accommodation: metaphor of a shattered vase
Professor Stephen Joseph, one of the leading researchers in the field, describes post traumatic growth using the metaphor of a shattered vase.
When trauma hits your life, you can either attempt to glue the fragments back together – life will look the same but it will be more fragile. This is known as assimilation – trying to carry on with life as it was before. Or you can pick up the pieces and make something new and sturdy like a beautiful mosaic. Life looks different but it’s stronger. This is accommodation.
Trying to make sense of the trauma by asking yourself why this happened and what you can do with it helps to turn PTS into PTG. This is how alchemy happens: transforming a negative into something adaptive and positive. It’s what underpins the creation of many charities aiming to make something good out of the suffering of the founders. This can lead to a new purpose in life.
The ‘gift’ in adversity, if you want to call it so, is that it opens us up to a deeper happiness, known as ‘eudaemonic well-being’, which is about meaning and engagement. This can often take the form of serving a purpose beyond the self. It might be having a new vocation or contributing to a cause you’re passionate about.
Post-traumatic stress and growth are pivot points in our lives. They catapult us to become bitter or better – the choice is ultimately ours. This is why Dr Jeffrey Schwartz and I developed our online webinar series: You Are Not Your Brain – designed to place people in the driver’s seat of their brain – to end bad habits, change unhealthy thinking and take charge of their life. Packed with practical models and exercises to support you to sustainably living life more fully, and be able to respond to adversities more adaptively and positively. This program will help you cope in the eye of the storm, strengthen your resilience to keep going and show you how it’s possible to grow through adversity. Check it out HERE
P.S. You might feel broken, but you are never defeated. If you are busy and need some time for yourself to reset, check out my digital download Simple Meditations for Busy People.
Not only is meditation recognized as a super-effective “brain tool,” many people report amazing positive results using meditation for specific health related problems including ADD, chronic fatigue, traumatic brain injury (TBI), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, depression, the treatment of addictions, and several others.
P.P.S Don’t forget to add this important date to your calendar!
TALK LIKE A PIRATE DAY is the biggest day on the Childhood Cancer Support calendar. Come along an support this wonderful charity which I am an ambassador for. Join me in a hearty sea shanty or walk the plank! All proceeds help children’s families who are facing the challenges presented by a cancer diagnosis. Join me in making TALK LIKE A PIRATE DAY i a success!