Nowadays, people seem to be very aware of trauma, complex trauma, and both the existence and effects of posttraumatic stress (PTSD). This increased awareness can only be a good thing, but there’s one significant omission. I don’t often hear people talking about the concept of posttraumatic growth, or what could be considered the “silver lining” of trauma.
Far from considering the possible positive impact trauma could have on a person, modern culture seems to in fact be fixated on protecting people from hardships of any kind. In this litigation-minded society, people are cautious about every little thing. Children can’t play tag on the school playground or climb trees anymore because they might get hurt. People are preoccupied with safety, in Western cultures in particular.
Considering personal safety is, of course, important. But with the type of mindset that encourages children to see the potential danger in every action, children are then more likely to grow up being afraid to take any risks, for fear they might fall down and get hurt. The fact is, they might fall down and get hurt. But falling, even pain—neither are insurmountable experiences. Without pain, people cannot grow. It is the hardships in life that mold us and build our character and inner sense of confidence.
How Hardship Can Help Us Grow
Of course I am not saying people need to experience extreme forms of trauma in order to learn and grow. However, I do believe people benefit from facing hardship and difficulty, and the intrapersonal struggles we often undergo in order to persevere through these life challenges help us become strong enough to face them. With trauma, then, often comes the development of strength of character and inner conviction of survival and victory.
“Although the world is full of suffering,” Helen Keller once said, “it is also full of the overcoming of it.” Consider that we cannot learn to get up until we fall down. Our confidence grows as we watch ourselves endure through and triumph over hardship.
Traumatic experiences are far-reaching and often affect all aspects of a person, including physical health, emotional state, and mental well-being. These effects are likely to include both immediate impact on a person’s life and daily function as well as long-term effects. An individual’s physical body, including their brain chemistry, is often radically changed—at least for a while.
The effects of trauma, whether they are short-term effects or last for months or even years, often include dissociation, increased negative thinking, flashbacks, triggers, emotional dysregulation, and changes in the brain’s structure, among others. In short, traumatic events transform a person.
When a person experiences any type of trauma (personal or otherwise), they often lose part of the self. Qualities such as trust, innocence, gullibility, sense of safety, and beliefs in the self and/or others may be shattered. Only once the initial shock of a traumatic experience wanes can the affected individual begin to grieve.
But falling, even pain—neither are insurmountable experiences. Without pain, people cannot grow. It is the hardships in life that mold us and build our character and inner sense of confidence.
Grieving is nature’s best way to heal trauma. Just like a broken arm needs healing, so does a broken psyche. But the grief process is just that—a process, not a destination. It can be described as a spiral: the feelings are experienced over time as healing takes place. Certain triggers may cause the survivor to be reminded life is not safe, and anxiety attacks may flare up when something akin to the original trauma happens.
But with rest, support, self-care, inner compassion, and other steps known to help the process of grief (journaling, crying, talking, expressing feelings through art, and being kind and patient with the self, among others), healing and posttraumatic growth are both possible.
Working Toward Posttraumatic Growth
If you have experienced trauma yourself, or if you are a counselor who wants to help someone you are working with understand how to make sense out of a trauma, you can ask questions such as, “How has this experience changed you?” “What wisdom do you have about life now that you didn’t have before this traumatic event occurred?” “What is helping you heal?”
Thought-provoking questions such as these can help people ponder the effects trauma has had on them. People often make meanings out of difficult life experiences through epiphanies. It would be difficult to “force” an epiphany, but you might ask, “Have you had any epiphanies related to your experience?”
I believe the most important way to transform trauma into growth is to find hope. If you have been victimized, finding something positive to hold on to is considered an essential aspect of recovery. This may not be easy, especially not at first, but it is imperative for a contented life. The discovery or regrowth of hope can lead to posttraumatic growth.
Though in the early wake of trauma, it may be difficult for some survivors to imagine any positive outcome, much less growth, it is possible for people to develop strengths and experience other positive effects after a traumatic experience, especially with the help of a compassionate and qualified mental health professional.
These “silver lining” benefits of trauma might include:
- Resilience, inner strength, grit
- Increased empathy and compassion for others
- Becoming closer to one’s god/increased spirituality or spiritual feeling
- Personal confidence
It should be emphasized it is never advised to push yourself or others to hurry through the grief process in order to arrive at the “meaning making” stage. The process of making meaning is not something to be forced. It is something to behold. It becomes apparent.
The process toward posttraumatic growth is not fixed, and each person may experience growth in different ways. However, what I consider the three necessary steps toward this growth are as follows:
- Grieving who you were and how you viewed reality prior to the traumatic event(s)
- Making meaning out of your experiences
- Choosing hope
An Attitude of Hope
Victor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning said, about overcoming trauma, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
Frankl experienced great horrors when imprisoned in different concentration camps in Nazi Germany. After his rescue he went on with his life and became a great philosopher. He learned, in spite of everything taken from him, he still possessed a small glimmer of power—over his own attitude. He understood the ability to find his autonomy in that one area alone was enough for him to sustain any trauma.
Hope is an attitude. Hope is something that can be developed. When I talk about hope in this context, I am not talking about a hope such as “I hope tomorrow is a sunny day.” I am talking about the type of hope where you want something to happen, the deep abiding hope for a positive outcome, the hope that life will be good. This is the type of hope that is determined and knows, no matter what troubles befall a person, there is always a silver lining. This is positive anticipation. The feelings involved in this type of hope are ones of optimistic expectation and gratitude.
Helping Trauma Survivors
Counselors can help trauma survivors by constantly reminding them things will be better. “This, too, shall pass” and “Better days are coming.” It is important to remember each time you meet with a person who has survived trauma to tell them something encouraging. Be the hope that person may not be ready to own. Think of yourself as “hope personified.” The people you work with will pick up on your personal attitudes toward them and their tragedy.
You can even ask the person you are working with, “How can I encourage you today?” The person will often be able to tell you some specific thing that will be helpful to them. For example, they might say something like, “Tell me I’m going to get back to normal again.” You can reply with an encouraging response such as, “You may not be the same, but you will heal, and you will be better.”
Always offer hope to the people you are working with, until they are able to own it themselves.
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