Experiencing a traumatic event, such as a molestation, cancer diagnosis, or witnessing others being hurt can be emotionally devastating. For some people, who do not have proper emotional support at the time of the trauma, the event can get “stuck: in their nervous systems leading to long-lasting distress, relationship problems, or addictive tendencies. There can be another side to stressful life experiences, however. Research shows that many people report psychological growth and positive psychological changes resulting from highly stressful events. This growth does not “undo” the negative effects, but may co-exist with them, or may be the result of therapeutic or spiritual work. Below are some ways in which experiencing a painful events can help you grow as a person.
Relating to Others
Researchers studying people exposed to events such as accidents, war zone deployment, serious illness, or bereavement have found that social support and relationships with others in the time period following the event are key predictors of psychological recovery. Difficult experiences can deepen our bonds with family and friends, and they give us the opportunity to see how deeply people care for us. We may gain a new appreciation for the relationships we have and realize we can trust others to listen, care, and help. Of course, when family and friends are unsupportive or betray our trust, the opposite effect can happen; we may feel more alone and unworthy of love. Even in these cases, we may eventually form new, healthier relationships as a result of therapy, spiritual work, or groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. We may learn that some people can be trusted, even if others cannot.
Research on posttraumatic growth has also shown that the experience of trauma may lead people into new activities, lifestyles, and/or relationships that make life more meaningful, rich, and satisfying. Some people choose to volunteer or advocate for change in areas related to their trauma. For example, a rape victim may volunteer in a Rape Crisis organization. Others write about their experience or express their feelings through creative arts. These activities open people to new networks or enhance their skills in ways that help them feel stronger, more whole, and more connected.They may find a sense of flow - feeling both engaged and challenged as they channel their pain into meaningful creative work.
Traumas can destroy self-esteem either because of the injury they cause, or because survivors may feel they did something wrong to deserve such victimization. Children naturally blame themselves for a parent’s neglect or mistreatment, and ae adults, they can get stuck in this perspective. Therefore, part of healing is realizing that you are not responsible for your victimization. If you put yourself in danger, there are often extenuating circumstances; you may not have learned how to protect yourself emotionally or physically because you were not protected as a child. Facing our traumas can help us learn how strong we are and what we can bear. We are often surprised by our ability to tolerate difficult memories and emotions when we feel motivated by a personally important goal.
You may choose to see difficult events as a spiritual message to change the direction of your life. Traumas can provide the impetus to give up drugs and alcohol and recommit to a healthy lifestyle. Traumas can lead to a deepening of faith when people realize the limits of personal control and ask a spiritual force or God to help them.. Researcher Daniel Mcintosh and colleagues, studying bereaved mothers, found that religion hastened recovery by helping people to find meaning, and by connecting them to a supportive and engaged community. Praying or meditating can help us find a new perspective on life; to be more accepting of the present moment and hopeful fo the future.
A New Appreciation of Life
Many people also report a greater appreciation of the life they have, following trauma. Following major life stress, people begin to heal when they connect with the simple pleasures of life, such as nature walks and time spent with family and friends. For some, parenthood provides new hope and an opportunity to do things differently. For others, realizing how near they came to dying physically or spiritually makes them grateful to be alive. Surviving a trauma may represent a second chance to rebuild your life and implement the lessons learned.
Reaching for Growth in the Face of Adverse Events
If you have experienced a traumatic event or a difficult childhood, it may help to:
- Think about the personal strength that you showed to survive these events. Even if you made some mistakes or did some things you regret, you did what you had to do to survive and that is something to be proud of.
- Think about the things that you have put in your life currently that make it meaningful, be it relationships, your work, your faith, or taking care of your family.Try to find everyday happiness in the life you have now.
- Think about what you have learned from going through these difficulties, and about how you might use this knowledge to help yourself and other people or create something of personal or societal value.
- Know that growth and hope can coexist with grief and that there will be ups and downs. Learn to anticipate and manage these. Be gentle with yourself on days when it is just too difficult to see the positive.
About The Author
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Licensed Psychologist, and expert on Mindfulness, Positive Psychology, Anxiety, and Stress-Management. Dr Greenberg provides workshops, stress-management and weight-management coaching in person or via distance technologies and psychotherapy.
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