An 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.
- Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
- 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.
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