Posttraumatic Growth: Celebrating Your Resilience
Sarah Thilges, PhD, Loyola University Medical Center; Dr. Laura Wool, PsyD, Loyola University Medical Center
When you go through something traumatic, you become more aware of the fragility and unpredictability of life. The natural response is often to fear further bad things that may happen in the future.
But, with deliberate practice, trauma can have a different result: posttraumatic growth. Posttraumatic growth is a kind of benefit finding or meaning making in the wake of trauma, deriving a new or strengthened value after a traumatic event. This is not the same as "looking on the bright side," a statement which is often invalidating and isolating for those suffering after a tragedy. Instead, posttraumatic growth is the recognition that a person has not just survived something unimaginable, but found a new pathway towards resiliency in the process.
H2: What is post-traumatic growth?
A traumatic event can take many forms. Some traumas are direct like witnessing a mass violence event, being involved in a significant motor vehicle accident, or combat exposure. Others are indirect, also called vicarious traumatization, like repeated exposure to suffering through work, hearing about frequent mass shootings, or witnessing a loved one undergo cancer treatment.
Any of these can shatter one’s life as they’ve known it. Generally, trauma survivors will take one of three routes forward as they try to resume their lives. Either the pieces of their previous life are put together as closely as possible to mimic life "before," the pieces are considered broken forever, or the pieces are put together in a stronger way. The latter is the path to posttraumatic growth, leading to what’s known as “value-based decision-making.” The person is forced by their trauma to reflect on what’s important from their previous life, holding onto only what matters most.
Although this process will look different depending on the individual, the unique aspects of their experience and the ways in which they were affected, there are similar domains in which people may notice growth. This in turn can lead people to reprioritize aspects of their life and consider making changes.
• Increased awareness of one's own strength – "I didn't know I could get through something like that."
• Greater appreciation for support – "I now realize how many people care about me and my family."
• Valuing each day – "I don't take it for granted that I wake up each morning."
• New opportunities – "I decided I wasn't going to put going back to school on hold anymore."
• Honoring the body – "I can't believe my body was strong enough to do all this."
• Increased empathy – "I now call someone when they lose a loved one, I know how much support matters."
It is important to acknowledge, grieve, and "feel the feelings" associated with a trauma. Fear, sadness, anger, and worry are natural and expected emotions after a trauma. It is common to notice a tendency to avoid different places, activities, and even people after a traumatic experience.
When avoiding, ask yourself if you’re trying to eliminate anxiety or if the event or situation is not important or meaningful to you. If it is to avoid experiencing anxiety but the event is important to you, encourage yourself to do it anyway. Anxiety doesn’t have to stop you from doing what is meaningful to you. You may still experience anxiety, but you will also be able to participate in what is important to you, which will likely be associated with feelings of joy, gratitude, and resiliency. This is the core of posttraumatic growth.
By permitting yourself to experience difficult emotions, it may better allow you to recognize your own strength as your grow from this dark place. Some ways in which posttraumatic growth may be elicited include:
• Deliberate rumination on how you and your life have been changed by a trauma. This may include the hard part of reflecting on loss, intentionally considering strengths you exhibited, support you received, and the ability to survive something you had previously unimaginable can change your perspective.
• Recognizing your ability to tolerate tough emotions and continue to participate in life may increase an understanding of distress tolerance and how it permits you to carry on.
• Create a journal or audio recordings to capture examples of posttraumatic growth to reconnect when you feel that recognition fading. It can be reassuring to believe that someday everything will start to feel "normal" again, but this idea depends on slowing the momentum created by this change in your life. Creating a journal or audio recordings to capture the resiliency and strength you recognize in yourself can help you reconnect when you feel that recognition fading.
After a traumatic event, we can turn the awareness of the fragility of life into newfound strength. We can choose to “seize the day” in appreciation for what days we have. This is a challenging path, but a courageous way to live and one that will certainly bring more opportunity for resiliency.
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