We’ve all heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, which unfortunately affects many people in the armed forces or that have experienced war scenarios or even been through traumatic experiences such as car accidents or losing a child just to name a few examples. But what is post-traumatic growth? Is it the opposite? How can a traumatic experience become an opportunity for personal growth? This article expects to answer this and much more. Keep on reading.
What is post-traumatic stress?
Unfortunately bad things happen to good people. And bad people too, for all that matters. And even if you’re the most optimistic and cheerful person in the world, it comes a time when you too will break down if a tragedy (personal or social one) comes your way.
Stress seems to be a part of modern life. And if it’s true a good dose of stress can impel you to action, too much stress will eventually make you sick and paralyzed. Let’s not forget stress is an important part of our survival mechanism of “fight or flight” – if you can manage the situation you’re probably going to fight but if you feel overwhelmed your instinct may be to flight. However unexpected stressful situations such as an illness, the death of a loved one or a natural catastrophe may be too much stress to handle and become what we call a trauma. A trauma is basically a psychological wound – stress of the situation has left marks on your mind and you keep coming back to that primal fear of insecurity and not being able to control your life and your surroundings.
We talk about post-traumatic stress when people exhibit a series of symptoms after experiencing some kind of psychological trauma. It can range from suffering from a life threatening illness such as cancer, to losing a loved one, being involved in a car accident, etc. Meaning: it could happen to any of us. The list of symptoms is long: insomnia, anxiety, stress, depression, social isolation, suicidal tendencies, extreme alertness and feeling in danger, distrusting others, memory loss, poor concentration levels, confusion and disorientation, lowered self-esteem and the list goes on.
What is post-traumatic growth?
“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” This famous quote by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche describes post-traumatic growth perfectly. There can be good things coming out of suffering trauma. How many people can you think of that after experiencing trauma became an inspiration to others? Meaning they took the negative energy of that trauma and tried to do something good with it.
According to Miriam Akhtar’s recent 2017 book “What is post-traumatic growth? The journey from adversity to growth”, post-traumatic growth is the positive outcome and change that derives from suffering trauma. It’s not just about the negative effects of a trauma, but it can also lead you to uncover new things about yourself and produce a positive change in you.
The author describes in her book her own PTS experience when she had to deal with her mother’s sudden illness and at the same time being a victim of cyberstalking. Akhtar decided to turn her experience and how she survived it into a book meant to help others. This is a perfect example of post-traumatic growth.
How can post-traumatic growth produce change? Meaning change in yourself – how you see and experience things, how you interact with others, and ultimately a change in your life philosophy – perceiving your life and personal history in a totally different way. For instance, how many people do you know, who after being through cancer started living life in a much more intense and happy way? Surviving cancer and facing death so closely, helps people realize what’s important in their lives and gives them a sense of having a second chance. And this time round you better do it right as you never know if you will get another go at it.
Strategies that help you develop post-traumatic growth
According to Akhtar’s book, there are two ways to dealing with trauma:
- Emotion-focused coping
- Problem-focused coping.
What do the two entail?
When your strategy is emotion-focused coping, you’re paying attention to your emotions and the distress caused by the trauma rather than solving the situation itself. This can be achieved by talking to a friend to relief anxiety and depression. Does it solve the problem? Not exactly. But feeling supported and loved helps relieve the tension.
On the other hand problem-focused coping involves taking action, resolving the issue or doing something about it. It’s a great way to exercise control over a situation and helps you feel more confident that you can solve the matter on your own or by asking for help – but basically it’s in your own hands.
However Akhtar’s book presents us with another way to cope with trauma though our body experiences. The “corporeal post-traumatic growth” based on the work by Dr. Kate Hefferon at the University of East London shows us that positive growth can show up as:
1. A new and improved relationship with your body
Having a life-threatening illness can serve as a wake-up call to start respecting your body a bit more and realizing if you don’t take care of it, it won’t last long. Your body is your temple and your duty to look after it by doing basic things like exercising and eating healthy.
2. Greater awareness of health-related behavior
What you do influences the general state of your body. So trauma survivors often engage in healthy behaviors towards their bodies such as giving up nasty habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption and take on habits such as eating in a healthier way and exercising more.
3. A stronger mind and body
It’s not just your physical health that can improve after a trauma, your mental health definitely can too. People report having more psychological tools to deal with situations, being mentally alert and being more optimistic towards the future.
How to reinforce these strategies
- Practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness helps re-direct your mind and concentrate on the here-and-now.
- Recognizing your strengths. If you know what your strengths are, you can use them to your advantage. What do you feel you’re good at?
- Cultivating positive emotions. Being altruistic, grateful, savoring, spending time in nature, doing physical exercise, meditation and positive relationships (like spending time with friends and family) all help build positive emotions.
- The 3 D’s of Resilience – Disputation, Distraction and Distancing. Disputation means you challenge your usual way of thinking by asking yourself to examine the evidence, to consider alternatives and finally to put things into perspective – this will help you shift from a pessimistic view to a more optimistic one. Distraction involves doing something that distracts you from the problem in order to calm down and be able to think clearer – talking to a friend, going out for a walk can do the trick. And finally distancing means both physical and emotional distance from situations. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to take a step back and return to it when you’re ready to face it.