Most of us are aware of the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It has been researched and spoken about in the media since 1980 when it was first recognized and added to the American Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)
The condition, however, has been with us in one way or another for hundreds of years. Previously referred to as shell shock or battle fatigue, it has been most commonly linked to soldiers post-battle. Back as far as 1952 the American Psychiatric Association listed “gross stress reaction” to its DSM.
So we can perhaps assume it has been a part of our world since mankind first encountered highly stressful situations, and lived to tell their tale. We can imagine Sabretooth Tigers causing quite a lot of stress in someone who stumbles across one outside their cave, but we also know that modern life brings about many opportunities for highly traumatic stress.
Car accidents, assaults, life-threatening illness, loss of a loved one, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes. It is not just the returned soldier who is prone to severe stress and then the development of this PTSD.
What is new, is an area of research around a condition called Post Traumatic Growth (PTG). This theory was developed by two psychologists, Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D., in the mid 1990’s. In their own words, they say that the theory holds that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterwards.
“People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life,” says Tedeschi.
Again, this has been known to us in a colloquial way for many years. How many times have we heard of cancer survivors who say that getting cancer, and the subsequent journey was the best thing that has ever happened to them?
The research is relatively new, and there is a lot to learn, however there are strong indications that some people go through a re-evaluation of their lives and their world views, and the results are surprisingly positive. A new appreciation of life, Stronger, deeper relationships, Seeing new possibilities in their lives and a strengthening of their belief in themselves and their own spirituality are all signs that growth has occurred following a trauma.
What may surprise most of us is that post-traumatic growth has been found to be much more common that PTSD, we just have not heard about is as much.
Tedeschi found that as many as 90 percent of survivors, suffering all sorts of trauma, and from all areas of modern life report at least one aspect of growth.
“It is important to make clear that not everybody experiences growth, and we are not implying that traumatic events are a good thing,” Tedeschi stresses. “They are not. In the wake of trauma, people become more aware of the futility in life, and that unsettles some while it focuses others. This is the paradox of growth: People become more vulnerable yet stronger.”
Here lies the greatest mystery. Why do some experience growth, while others do not? Trauma Psychologists have found a series of practices very helpful for trauma sufferers turning struggle into growth and strength.
Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, and maintaining a moment by moment awareness of what is going on with our mind and body. Our thoughts, feelings, sensations and surrounds. Not living in the past or the future. Meditation and breathing exercises a universally recognized method of achieving mindfulness, and are shown to actually change the pathways and functioning of the brain. This helps in reducing the stress reactions in people who regularly practice this form of mindful training. Mindfulness has been found to decrease anxiety, stress, and increase feelings of self-compassion.
Before any recovery can happen, there has to be an acceptance that there is damage, and that help is needed. This is a huge step for many, who try and “Get on with it” or just “Cheer up” when something much deeper and more clinical is going on. Vulnerability is accepting there is a problem, and asking for help. This simple, yet crucial step is a major achievement.
Before you can love another, you need to find love for yourself. Before you can forgive another, you need to be able to forgive yourself. Survivor guilt, self- blame, shame, are all debilitating feelings that need to be worked through so that self-compassion can be felt. This often needs professional help from qualified psychologists who are experienced in trauma recovery.
4. Finding Meaning
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect, and the one which has the most diverse outcomes is the search for meaning. Previous certainties are shaken, or totally wiped out. A re-examining of the meaning of life, where they fit into their own lives, what is important to them now, all of these basic foundations are up for re-establishment after recovering from a major life trauma. From religion, to self-awareness, to future ambitions, and these form a key indicator as to how someone recovers and grows.
Perhaps the most important quality in finding and developing happiness in life. Research has demonstrated again and again that by focusing on what we are grateful for in our lives is a universally recognized way of improved happiness, being more optimistic, better health, more empathy and a stronger self esteem. In recovering from trauma all of these are crucial, and can lead to growth.
6. You don’t have to go it alone…
The power of sharing our stories, re-building trust, connecting to others who have experienced similar trauma can be a truly joyful experience. Our connections on this planet are what help us to see who we really are, and what is important to us. By opening up and asking for help, reaching out to others, even giving help to those who are where you have been, can be one of the most powerful and uplifting parts of this journey towards recovery.