Trauma and Growth

imagesOver the next two months, I will be speaking at various events about the benefits and personal growth associated with trauma.  Did I just say benefits, personal growth and trauma in the same sentence?  That might sound impossible or rare when in fact it’s more common than we think.

Trauma is unexpected, unpredictable and uncontrollable.  At first there is stunned confusion when the thoughts and images are so overwhelming that the brain mobilizes defence mechanisms to force it from our minds.  But, this protection can only work for so long and then the more we try to force against those thoughts and images, the more intrusive they become.

If we can unpack these emotions a little at a time, unpacking and repacking, slowly and having patience with ourselves, they can move them from active memory to long term memory and we can heal.

Studies have shown that people who cope poorly with trauma drink 73%, smoke 44% and take tranquilizers 21% more often than those who cope well.  Many times, these people are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One would be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard of PTSD as there has been extensive research, studies and papers written on the devastating effects.  Certainly, at least in the beginning, I suffered quite extensively with many symptoms of PTSD.  Thankfully over time they have diminished and I’m only left with a few lingering characteristics that I still struggle with, but that’s not uncommon.

However, there is new research emerging that supports that even in the midst of great psychological pain, some people gain a new perspective and not only survive but then lead a more meaningful life, including new recognition of one’s personal qualities and a deeper more satisfying connection to others.   There is also evidence to support the idea that these people may be stronger in the face of future adversity.

One might assume that these cases are few and far between, but in the relatively new field of Post Traumatic Growth, there is good news and maybe surprising data.  Some studies show that to those who have suffered a major traumatic event, almost 45%  report having a more positive outlook on life afterwards.

The recent focus of PTG in the world of psychology is promising.  Promising because up until recently it has been unfashionable to speak of the positive outcomes after a traumatic experience and the focus has only been on moving from the emotional turmoil after the event to a neutral state.  But, the emerging field of PTG is focused on moving the victims or survivors of trauma not only from a negative state to neutral one, but then further to a positive, productive, healthy and joyful life.

This is much like the difference between grief counseling and grief coaching.

The research suggests that the primary factor in determining who will grow rather than deteriorate is the amount of social support available after the traumatic event and how people feel about the incident – like feelings of guilt.

Victims of crime need support. Period! The lifeline the support provides them is vital for the recovery of everyone, particularly those who are marginalized.  But it’s not only the victims they are helping.  There is a snowball effect that is initiated because of this support. Victims either grow into better, stronger, more compassionate citizens, able to be a positive influence on succeeding generations, or they can spiral downwards, often bringing their offspring with them, who then become another burden on society, and that Ladies and Gentlemen, means you and me.

We all have a role to play, but expecting growth rather than life long suffering is the first step in changing the psychology of trauma.   The human condition is an amazing, beautiful and resilient one that only needs love and support to thrive even in the worst situations.

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