We’ve all heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It refers to changes in the brain and our functioning after an experience of extreme trauma. It can actually change our genes and the wiring of our brains. Military veterans and survivors of physical and sexual assault are common victims of PTSD. The new buzz phrase is “trauma informed treatment” for survivors of sexual and gender based violence. It is important to understand how trauma affects the brain to understand what the survivor is experiencing.
We also read things like the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE) or a book like Scared Sick, by Robin Carr-Morse to learn what devastating health issues may befall survivors of child abuse. I know, I have experienced many of those outcomes! I have also had survivors get mad at me for sharing the ACE Study with them. I hear, “Thanks a lot asshole, now I know how miserable my life will continue to be.”
But there is more to surviving trauma than the negative ways it changes us. There can be very positive outcomes. I have recently become aware of a new field of study called Post Traumatic Growth, a name coined by two researchers from University of North Carolina, Dr Richard Tedeschi and Dr Lawrence Calhoun. Now Jim Rendon explores their theories in the recent book Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth.
Talk about a dichotomy; one is a painful disorder and the other an awakening, and they are both supposed outcomes of trauma. What the hell? As it turns out, scientists are finally discovering that people who put a lot of effort into healing from trauma often grow in surprising ways.
As we begin healing, most of us start from a place of hurt, anger and often despair. We know that severe trauma is held emotionally in our minds and has no language, so that when we first tell or write our story, it give us words to help understand what happened to us. That is where most survivors begin and every one I know tells me that just telling their story helps them heal.
That process of speaking, writing and going to counseling is exactly what results in Post Traumatic Growth in many people. The amount of introspection and rumination of one’s life while healing often changes how we see ourselves, and our place in the world. For me, I had to find a way to put meaning into my life after all the pain and dysfunction.
Dr Tedeschi compares a traumatic event to an earthquake that damages a building. The challenge is to see the opportunity presented by this seismic event. “In the aftermath of the earthquake, why not build something better? Don’t just live beneath the rubble (which many of us do!), don’t just build the same old building that you had before….”
He describes 5 factors of post traumatic growth:
- Personal Strength (feeling personally stronger)
- Appreciation of life
- Relating to others in new ways (intimacy, compassion, showing up)
- New possibilities for life
- Spiritual change or growth
I have often wondered why I find survivors to be such amazing people. Many either work for, or started organizations that exist to prevent abuse or support survivors. Now I see that it is an outcome of growth from their healing process. “With post-traumatic growth, a person who has faced difficult challenges doesn’t just return to baseline, which is what happens with resilience,” explains Tedeschi. “They change in fundamental, sometimes dramatic, ways.”
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, it’s insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” Cynthia Occelli
So to those of you out there who are just beginning your healing or wonder, “What comes next?”, think about the fact that often, new life comes because of the catastrophe, and it is not just course correction, but an entirely new direction.