7 Ways Survivors Can Grow After Trauma
Life may end up even better than before the traumatic event.
Posted Oct 25, 2016
I recently wrote about the ways we can struggle following a traumatic event (see "21 Common Reactions to Trauma"), and also noted that a horrifying event often leads to growth. Of the trauma survivors I've treated, none exemplified post-traumatic growth more than "Bill" (name and details changed to protect his identity).
Bill came to me two years after he'd been caught in the crossfire between a shooter and his intended target, and consequently lost the use of his right (dominant) arm. Every day he was reminded of his trauma as he had to get by with the use of only his left hand. Understandably his PTSD was severe, and he blamed himself for not being over the shooting.
During the course of our work Bill made it clear to me that he wanted to forgive the shooter but didn't feel like he could. Bill believed in the teachings of Christ and his admonition to "Love your enemy," but confessed that he just wasn't there. Bill was comforted by our discussion of a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes, popularized in a familiar folk song, that says there's a time for everything, including "a time to love and a time to hate." He began to accept that his feelings toward the man who had cost him his arm were much closer to hate than love.
As Bill went through cognitive behavioral therapy for PTSD, his symptoms improved dramatically, and he no longer blamed himself for what had happened—or for continuing to struggle with it. He was able to expand his world again, connect with people he was close to, and finally sleep better.
What I was not expecting was when Bill said he'd met with his shooter at the prison. He was left with the belief that the man was a basically decent person, and had been retaliating against a guy who had attacked someone in the shooter's family. Bill was able to let go of the anger that he had for the man. More than that, when he learned that the man had a young son he would never see outside of prison for 25 years, he began to petition for the man's early release.
I still feel a lot of emotion remembering the remarkable growth I witnessed in Bill during the time we worked together. As his story shows, positive things can come from traumatic experiences, including:
- Forgiveness. When we let go of being wronged—even in violent and traumatic ways—we release the bitterness and resentment that can poison us more than the original attack. As has often been said, forgiveness benefits the forgiver more than the forgiven.
- A recognition of our strength. Surviving a terrifying event like a car accident, natural disaster, or assault shows us that we can "take a punch," literally or metaphorically. Even if it knocked us down at first, we got back up. Nothing confirms our strength like weathering major adversity.
- Enhanced resilience. Traumatic stresses can have an inoculating effect, making us more likely to bounce back from subsequent traumas. (Sometimes they can make us less resilient, for reasons that aren't fully understood.) I suspect this resilience is related to #2, recognizing our strength: When we see what we've already lived through, we know we can make it through again.
- Greater compassion for other trauma survivors. I know for myself that until I'd been through my own traumas, I didn't really—couldn't really—get it. I couldn't know what it was like to suddenly feel like you're in a nightmare, or to wonder if it was really over, or to be triggered out of the blue, or to blame myself for letting it happen. Experiencing trauma firsthand connects us to countless others who know what it's like. That connection and compassion provide a further source of strength.
- A sharpened sense of purpose. For some trauma survivors, the darkest moments of their lives can spur them to helping others. It may be the survivor of childhood sexual abuse who becomes an advocate for the marginalized, or the survivor of childhood cancer who becomes an oncologist. Or it might mean simply striving to bring goodness into the world, recognizing that there is already enough suffering and hate.
- Deepened connections to supportive others. Through both of my traumatic incidents I was moved by the showing of care and concern from others—not only family members and close friends, but those I hardly knew: People in the neighborhood where we were mugged who offered us water and a listening ear while we waited for the police, the maintenance man who changed the lock on our apartment door on the Fourth of July, the colleague who took me to lunch when I told him what had happened. The care of others is a powerful antidote when another person has hurt us. And like so many things, the good that others do can outweigh the harm from the trauma. Love is stronger than hate. Light vanquishes darkness. Like testing our own strength, we often don't know the support that's available to us until we need it.
- Appreciation for life. As awful, sad, and scary as life can be at times, when we survive a life-threatening trauma we tend to value life more than before. It's a bit of a paradox, since life would seem to be less appealing after a trauma. It makes me think of a young woman I treated who survived a freak medical emergency, and was profoundly grateful for any experience she had afterward—including painful surgeries as part of her recovery. She recognized that life can be really, really awful, and yet she wouldn't trade any of it.
Humans are meaning makers. We have a strong inclination to want to understand our experience, and to fit what happens to us into a narrative—a story of our lives—that makes sense. Finding the good in the bad is one powerful way we can do that.
But one word of caution here: I know of very few trauma survivors who appreciate the line, "Everything happens for a reason." Finding meaning and hope through our experiences is not the same as being handed a cliché about life. So if someone you care about is struggling to understand why they went through something so awful and unfair, the most honest answer may be, "I don't know, and I'm so sorry that you did." Meaning may come with time.
One person who found tremendous meaning through what he experienced was Elie Wiesel, who survived the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps where his parents and sister died. If anyone has demonstrated post-traumatic growth it is he, with his focus on peace, humanitarian work, and through his novels and essays. As I read some of his memoirs in college, I was so disheartened by our race. It's easy to despair when we're confronted with the appalling reality of what we can do to our fellow humans.
And yet Elie Wiesel had lived these events, not merely read about them. How did he not despair? Years ago I wrote to him and asked him exactly that question. He kindly wrote me back a brief note, saying that for him despair was never an option. It made it sound like hope, and growth, were a choice.
If you've been through trauma like most of us have, you may recognize in yourself the ways you've grown through your trauma. Or perhaps you're not at that place yet. Post-traumatic growth is not something we can force. Premature attempts to make ourselves feel a particular way about the trauma don't tend to be productive. As with Bill, we can let ourselves feel what we feel: We are works in progress.
If you recognize post-traumatic growth in your own experience, I invite you to leave a comment or question.
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