Posttraumatic Growth: From Surviving to Thriving
The pursuit of happiness and thriving is deep-seated in each of us, yet can feel unattainable for some who are struggling to recover from trauma or complex trauma. There are inspiring stories of triumph and success that make the news every day, and other stories that reside in the quieter spaces, not as obvious to the public eye, yet just as remarkable, nonetheless. These stories have been the impetus for studies and research related to what is called Posttraumatic Growth. The human spirit is amazingly resilient and can truly overcome and emerge out of the depths of some of the worst imaginable trauma and loss. I have witnessed it, been amazed by it, and I am blessed to continue to learn from it.
Adopting a strengths based perspective has been shown to shift the outcome for people working through trauma. The theory of Posttraumatic Growth suggests some people have the capacity to grow dramatically following a traumatic event. Post-traumatic growth is defined by the Posttraumatic Growth Research Group at the University of North Carolina as the “… positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. “ The changes measured were typically in improved relationships, sense of empowerment, greater appreciation of life, and often in new perspectives on spirituality. The struggle following the trauma, not the trauma itself, is the impetus for the change.
One of the greatest pleasures of being a therapist is that what I know and implement in trauma therapy has in part been learned from academia, books and hard work, but a large portion of it is learned from experience- experiences in life, experiences in overcoming challenges, and in experiences working with amazing clients. A few of my insights have emerged from what I want to say is a culmination of these experiences. However, the learning curve is ongoing and that the word “culmination” falls short of articulating the nature of an ever changing perspective on the things that best foster resiliency in people recovering from tragedy. Most importantly, some people not only recover from tragedy but are able to overcome it much like someone who summits Mt. Everest, or breaks a world record in a marathon: they emerge victorious. This is Posttraumatic Growth. I think it is the confidence that this potential is there for most everyone, that keeps me motivated in my work with clients struggling to move past such difficult circumstances.
Whether one recovers from trauma or experiences growth from trauma, some of the factors that I have seen in my work that are helpful in finding and developing resilience in trauma recovery are the following:
Develop systems of meaning.
One of the things I have experienced is that people who learn to thrive have developed amazing resources. In fact, the resources they develop are more than just coping skills such as breathing exercises or relaxation practices. Their resources are particularly meaningful to them–people, places, spirituality or practices that provide them with a sense of comfort and hope. This doesn’t mean that they come into therapy with these things, but that they are open to exploring and searching for something that resonates with them.
Willingness to work hard.
Life is messy. There are ups, downs, highs and lows and lots of complications that are created along the way. Working through these things can be challenging, but it is possible to learn to thrive. My job is to make sure my clients also know that I am there with them, working alongside them, helping them to tap into their unique resources and strengths no matter how deeply buried they may be. I want my clients to know that I have faith in their ability to maneuver through the messy, and also prepare them for the fact that this can be hard work at times.
Learn to look at the trauma objectively.
In the process of counseling, I try to help my clients develop the ability to look at the trauma objectively. Our brains need this in order to recover from trauma. I often explain to my clients that our lives are like a story book—the story isn’t just contained on one specific page, the story is about the whole book, the message contained in it and the journey of its unfolding.
Fostering compassion for your younger self is a cathartic piece of the healing process. Allowing yourself the grace to have made mistakes, to have needed something that was not received, or to appreciate the perfection of imperfection is all a part of the growth journey. Finding love for that younger self fosters greater love for yourself, right where you are now, providing an important piece of the foundation needed for healing.
These are just a few of the many things that factor into resilience, but the point is that if you are struggling to find relief from suffering, trauma or loss, trust that you can triumph over it. You are in the midst of only a chapter of your story, but there are many chapters yet to be written, and you are the author. With support, guidance, and possibly some professional counseling, you can tap into your unique strengths, your systems of meaning, and you can emerge from these challenges victorious. It is possible to not only survive, but to learn to thrive.