How Trauma Can Lead to Positive Change
The science of post-traumatic growth demystified.
Posted Jun 13, 2016
"You're rushing around your house and you accidentally knock a precious vase to the floor. It smashes into pieces immediately. What do you do next? Do you see the vase as garbage now and throw it in the bin? Do you collect the pieces and try to put them together exactly as it was? Or do you pick up your favourite pieces from the pile and use them to create something new, like a colourful mosaic?"
These are the beautiful words of leading post-traumatic researcher Professor Stephen Joseph. They are a great representation of how adversity can lead to positive change if you choose it to.
But first, let's be clear about a few things. Post-traumatic growth doesn't mean that you suppress the sorrow, stress or anger you feel after a traumatic event. Neither does it mean that you seek to understand the situation right then and there when you're in the midst of it. Last, but not least, it's also not about denying that something was as traumatic as it was.
Instead, post-traumatic growth is about accepting the trauma as a part of who you are. It's about accepting that it can change and evolve who you are, which is why you shouldn't fixate on putting back those vase pieces back together exactly as they used to be. It's also about realising that how you view the world can change, as can your experience of some of your relationships. All in all, it's about acknowledging that personal growth can be found from the suffering that comes from trauma.
Professor Stephen Joseph talks about how this post-traumatic growth can lead to positive change in three different ways:
- Your perspective changes.
You stop worrying about the nitty gritty details and start appreciating the big picture. You learn to live more mindfully and feel a stronger connection to what truly matters.
- Your perception of yourself changes.
You realise you're stronger than you ever thought was possible. You start to do things you used to be scared of doing because you feel more confident in your abilities. You start loving yourself for exactly who you are, appreciating your best qualities and accepting your limitations.
- Your relationships improve.
You start to feel more gratitude towards the people you love in your life. You feel more compassion towards them and you crave deeper, more intimate relationships with them. If you've shared a trauma with someone, this could strengthen the connection you have between each other.
These kinds of positive changes have been observed in war veterans, natural disaster survivors, those suffering severe health challenges and sexual assault victims. They have even been reported in people following accidents, bereavement and other traumatic events - such as mass shootings.
However, the most important thing to remember is not to force this idea of personal growth and positive change upon yourself right away. You do need time to deal with the grief and frustration of it first and foremost. This is a natural first step in any healing process. Only once you have had some time and distance from the traumatic event can you start to explore its meaning in your life. You really need to feel ready and well equipped to do this - if you don't, it's too soon.
Once you are no longer grieving or suffering extremely negative emotions from the trauma, you can start to explore positive change in a healthy, productive way. You can do this with an incredibly powerful exercise: Pennebaker and Beall's (1986) expressive writing exercise.
The rules are simple:
- Do it for four consecutive days.
- Write for 15 minutes non-stop every day.
- Ignore spelling, grammar, punctuation and handwriting.
- Write even when you don't know what to write. Just keep your pen on paper non-stop.
- Follow these directions from Pennabaker and Beall (1986):
Write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experiences of your entire life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie this trauma to your childhood, your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives. You may also link this event to your past, your present, or your future, or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or on different topics each day. Not everyone has had a single trauma but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors – and you can write about these as well.
Really give yourself time and space to dive deeply into this. It may not be easy, especially at the start, but as you carry on with the four days it starts to make more sense. At the end of the four days, reflect on how you might have experienced positive change as a result of this traumatic event and how you grew from it.
Remember that it's all about openly accepting this breakage in you and using it as an opportunity to build yourself anew. Then, as you face different types of adversities in your life, you will continuously be developing into a more resilient being. This resilience will propel you into a positive state of mind and enable you to live your most fulfilling life yet.