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“We can replace a medically oriented perspective on posttraumatic stress with the understanding that the struggle with trauma can ultimately be a springboard to a greater level of psychological functioning” – Stephen Joseph. Centre for Trauma, Resilience, and Growth, University of Nottingham, UK
Majority of us are familiar with the term post-traumatic stress, however, positive psychology researchers challenge us to look at the impact of trauma from a completely different perspective.
Awfully distressing events do not necessarily lead to negative psychological consequences. From the outsider’s perspective the event often looks so terribly distressing that we can’t imagine how people are going to cope. Yet, traumatic events often cause dramatic changes in deeply held beliefs about oneself, others and life. After a while the impact turns out to be of growth and personal transformation.
I like the term ‘growth’ and I often use it in my work. It implies a natural developmental process rather than mechanical and effortful practices. Growth reminds us that we always exist as potential for something greater than who we believe to be. We need a proper nourishing and cultivation in order to flourish.
Rhonda Cornum is the famous female flight surgeon whose helicopter was shot down during the gulf war in 1991. She was captured, tortured and sexually assaulted by the Iraqis during her captivity.Years later she shared how the experience changed her life: “It made me relate to patients with more compassion, feels stronger while facing a challenge, appreciate family and become more attentive parent and spouse, it opened me up to the possibility of a spiritual, not just physical, life”.
Rhonda described an experience that goes beyond resilience, that is, beyond adaptation and bouncing back to how things used to be before the trauma. Rhonda has been transformed in a way which is now well documented by studies.
What are the hallmakrs of Post-traumatic growth?
Researchers identify 5 key elements in the experience of growth after extremely distressing life events:
1. A sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle, opening up possibilities that were not present before (For example, new roles and new people)
2. A change in relationships with others. Some people experience closer relationships with some specific people, and they can also experience an increased sense of connection to others who suffer.
3. An increased sense of one’s own strength – “if I lived through that, I can face anything”.
4. Positive changes in life philosophy. Finding a fresh appreciation for each new day, or renegotiating what really matters.
5. A sense of spirituality. Curiosity about the realm that is beyond the physical and material world.
Do awful events increase strength?
When researchers ask people to name awful events that have happened to them and to then measure their functioning level, they find that the more awful life events an individual has experienced the higher they describe their strength.
Take for example, the Vietnam’s prisoners of war: Most of them experienced positive growth from the experience. Furthermore, those who experienced the worst torture and physical injury reported the most personal growth in the decades after their release.
New Zealand psychologist Chris Skellett who lost his son says: ”The loss gives you access to a wonderful array of very real human experiences, especially the connection between people…Sadness is tinged with an incredibly profound depth of appreciation of life. You’re
acutely aware of what’s important. A lot of the things that preoccupied me before seem rather trite and superficial now. Now, I’m much more connected to the little things. I’m much more profoundly moved by music. A walk in the evening just seems like a gift”.
What facilitates the growth?
This is a great mystery. Some Researchers argue it is the cognitive process of retelling the story while creating a new meaning and gaining new perspectives. Yet, many go through growth without the conscious cognitive processing. It seems reasonable to suggest that it comes down to the mix of personality and life circumstances. Some of us are better supported and equipped with coping mechanisms while others might need more support during the healing process.
I believe that an important part of the process is the melting of the egoic self; that story about self and life that we often hold religiously tight. The beliefs of our egoic self are all to do with how things should be. When it melts, you open up to see things as they are. Accepting, letting go and appreciation to life reflect expansion of the lens. From narrow and resisting ego that ‘knows’ , ‘understands’ and ‘controls’ to the humbled non-ego that wonders about the mystery of life.
So what can we learn from that?
It seems that life in its natural and mysterious way transforms for us the pain into something else. It is as if pains are rooting you deeper in the ground so that the branches of your tree can aspire higher to the sky.
Post traumatic growth reminds us that personal distress is often accompanied by growth. At the time of the event, when we are totally immersed in the pain, we can’t remember that. It seems wise to let the strong current of life carry us through the profound grief without any resistance. The same river that dropped us scaringly in the waterfall will carry us to the lake where we can reconnect with the beauty and abundance life offers us.
About the author:
Guy (Hagai) Avisar is a psychologist with more than 30 years of experience helping people with relationship issues