Better After Trauma Than Before It? For Many, It’s True

hiking woman seaside moutain peak enjoy the viewAn Internet search can quickly point to research about trauma, types of therapy used to treat trauma, and statistics about recovering from trauma. It is not uncommon to have people come to therapy informed about the type of trauma therapy they are seeking, the nature of trauma and how it is stored in the brain, and other information that is applicable to the search for relief from trauma symptoms.

One concept that many are unaware of, however, is the concept of posttraumatic thriving.

Zoellner and Maercker (2006) define posttraumatic growth as a positive change a person has experienced as a result of events that were traumatic. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” This couldn’t be truer when referring to trauma. We often wish we could change the past, including traumatic events that have happened, but that’s not possible. What is possible is we can make the decision to work toward healing in the present. In practice, I see this happen consistently.

People come to therapy with all degrees of trauma. Some come with horrific childhood trauma that was ongoing, sometimes into adulthood. Some come in for specific traumatic events, such as car accidents. Others seek help for feeling neglected or bullied at some point. Regardless of the nature of the trauma, it is real and it is painful.

All types of trauma have a commonality—a type of grief process that is common in trauma work. It is similar to any other form of grieving. There is often denial, which is often dissociation from the event. Anger about what happened is very appropriate and an important part of this process. At some point in the work, there is bargaining. This can include trying to think of how one could have prevented the trauma from happening, playing out different scenarios for how things could have been different, and so on. Sadness and/or depression after trauma is pretty self-explanatory. Then comes acceptance of what is and has been.

After a person has appropriately grieved, what happens next is amazing. This is when the person begins to notice his or her posttraumatic thriving.

Often, people are surprised about their strength; they successfully overcame an obstacle they didn’t think they could overcome.

Posttraumatic growth and thriving may look different from person to person. Common types I have seen among the people I work with in therapy are a renewed and healthy sense of power and control, a new perspective, and dealing with stressors in a more relaxed manner. What everyone has in common is a new appreciation for life.

Many have even stated that their lives are better post-trauma than before the traumatic incident(s). This does not mean that they are happy an incident occurred. It simply means they found out what they are made of. Often, people are surprised about their strength; they successfully overcame an obstacle they didn’t think they could overcome. They tend to become more confident in handling everyday stressors. They tend to worry less about small issues that used to upset them.

For a person dealing with and recovering from trauma, becoming aware of posttraumatic thriving as a possibility often brings new hope and can help move the person forward in a powerful and positive way. That hope can bring a tremendous amount of energy to the therapeutic work and can propel it forward. When the work gets hard, as it often does, the confidence that comes from knowledge about posttraumatic thriving can get a person through those rough patches in treatment. It can make all the difference in the world to know that not only can one recover from trauma, but he or she can thrive, too.

References:

  1. Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
  2. Zoellner, T., & Maercker, A. (2006). Posttraumatic growth in clinical psychology – A critical review and introduction of a two component model. Clinical Psychology Review Journal, 26(5), 626-653.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, therapist in Midvale, Utah

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Blakely

    Blakely

    August 9th, 2015 at 5:23 AM

    I applaud those who can get through a traumatic event and come out thriving and well on the other side of that hurt and pain. Bravo to them for their strength and their courage!

  • MAC

    MAC

    August 9th, 2015 at 9:56 AM

    We don’t tend to hear too much about this, that there is a very real potential for people who have experienced trauma to then come back form it and be stronger than they ever were before.

  • Richard

    Richard

    August 10th, 2015 at 10:26 AM

    I think that if perhaps this was emphasized more often, that there is a possibility of becoming stronger and resilient after this happens, that perhaps more people would choose that and would choose that as the path that they wish to take. I think that once someone sees that this does not have to be what they are all about, they could come to work toward being happy and making that a goal in their life again.

  • gracie o

    gracie o

    August 12th, 2015 at 10:42 AM

    Not that I would ever want to have to go through it but… it can give you a chance to learn more about yourself and to see that you can do this

  • ina

    ina

    October 26th, 2015 at 12:20 PM

    It is soooo true. Losing my baby girl was…. beyond words. 5 years later and after countless hours of crying, desperation etc yes i see life and live it thriving.

  • Jon L.

    Jon L.

    November 6th, 2015 at 4:28 PM

    The metaphor of addiction-and recovery- shouts out

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    January 19th, 2016 at 5:50 PM

    This is so very true and helpful. It Is truly in the dark places in our lives, that the brightness comes shining through. It’s like the pulling back of an arrow and catapulting into a brighter future!!!

  • Emily

    Emily

    January 21st, 2016 at 7:49 PM

    Thank you for this. After just having gone through ‘completion’ (? can’t think of the proper word), I feel hope. I hope I have finally dealt with the feelings I’ve buried for decades, and that now I can finally move on and be me.

  • Dorothy S.

    Dorothy S.

    October 23rd, 2016 at 9:12 AM

    I read Man’s Search for Meaning 40 years ago, as well as Carl Jung and others who were on the cutting edge at that time. I deeply valued what they were saying, still and all, I went on to live the next 30 years in deep emotional suffering, diagnosed at one point with “clinical depression”. Endless therapists, self-help books, trying with everything I had to grab on to fundamental psycho/spiritual truths I knew in my heart only staved off utter despair and hopelessness. Depression turned to compassion fatigue turned to burnout turned to debilitating fear and anxiety, and still I plodded through my days, until the day my husband and I were broadsided going 65 mph on the highway flipping the car 4 times. I did not see it coming and was not driving. This experience was the epitome of powerlessness and while my physical injuries were minimal, an under treated TBI and PTSD (which took me better than a year and the help of a Naturopath to diagnose) led me on the path of healing. It took better than 5 years to overcome a lifetime of non-treatment, and the debris that accumulated as a result. I am here to testify that healing is possible, with the right help. That is the trick. Traditional medicine is not enough and often overlooks important elements. Therapy is catching up but it may not be enough either. There is a spiritual component that I would say must be addressed. Guided imagery meditation and meditation itself helped me find that inner core self that has always been with me. Whether you want to call that God, Spirit, or wise self, it is a valuable inner guide for navigating trauma and healing. Thank you for all you do on this website. I come back here again and again and am never disappointed. The word is spreading and as a result healing is happening more often and people are able to begin to break free from living lives of “quiet desperation”.

  • TH

    TH

    April 29th, 2017 at 3:35 AM

    I think for many like me it’s a mixed bag and nowhere near so simple. Living with not onlybpsychological scars (and stengths) but ongoing physical pain and consequences of a serious life threatening accident. There is no end to the physical reminders. Yes I learnt I could survive, that we humans assume we will survive (actual risk of death) sometimes a natural automatic protection to help us through, like shock. I learnt ultimately that I can reform me, my body, my life… though that took so much effort. With my injuries I have had to leave many dreams behind and that still makes me sad. I have grown new dreams, realised an increased capacity for empathy, appreciate LIFE IS now, live with eyes wide open, recognise true kindness in others….. For me it is not about being “better” before OR after trauma, that is too simplistic when your whole life changes, including you body, your physical potential, your career, your childbearing and more.

  • Linda

    Linda

    May 2nd, 2017 at 8:59 PM

    Being a survivor involves more than just thriving for me. Some days I feel like giving up. Maybe it’s my personal experience but everyday I deal with insult to Injuy but yet I’m striving to make my oppressors a better future. I never signed up for depression it chose me due to the geological location I was heading at that time on that day.
    Geez

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    May 3rd, 2017 at 11:12 AM

    Hi Linda,

    Thank you for your comment. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

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