While loss and tragedy are never welcome happenings, at least something of value may come of them in time. A handful of dear friends of mine has recently experienced some extraordinarily challenging and painful life events which have prompted me to write this article. While most people will be familiar with the condition post-traumatic stress disorder, far less well-known is the concept of post-traumatic growth.
When I was facing the crisis of my father’s terminal illness, coupled with the birth of my first child, I turned to positive psychology—the study of all the things that make life worth living. In the growing field of positive psychology, I found some tremendously valuable solutions and discovered the concept of post-traumatic growth. Just reading about it at the time was a tonic to me, and now, two years later, I can really see the blossoming that has occurred as a result—the silver lining, so to speak. I hope this article may provide some help to others in the same way, perhaps in time to come.
What is post-traumatic growth?
Post-traumatic growth can be defined as the positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances.
Post-traumatic growth is not simply a return to baseline from a period of suffering; instead, it is an experience of improvement that, for some individuals, is deeply meaningful.
According to research by Martin Seligman*, one of the founders of the positive psychology tradition, a substantial number of people who display symptoms of depression and anxiety after extreme adversity eventually arrive at a higher level of psychological functioning than before. Amazingly, he found the worse the tragedy, the greater the growth.
People who had several awful things occur to them showed greater psychological functioning than those who had just one.
How does it come about?
According to Seligman, the seeds of growth and personal transformation in response to trauma are found in the following:
- Renewed appreciation for the value of life and a sense that one needs to live more fully in the present moment.
- Enhanced sense of personal strength, resourcefulness, competence and belief in one’s own ability to cope and to overcome adversity.
- Acting on new possibilities that would not have otherwise been available.
- Greater sense of closeness with others and compassion.
- Spiritual deepening and developing a more satisfying philosophy of life.
To promote post-traumatic growth:
- Understand what constitutes a normal response to adversity and give yourself permission, time and space to have a normal, human response to your experience.
- Know that the grief, sadness, and sense of shattered beliefs will pass, and that they don’t necessarily mean you have post-traumatic stress disorder or that you lack strength of character.
- Professional help is always on hand to support you through the period of crisis and dealing with the aftermath.
- See your general practitioner; seek out a counsellor or psychologist.
- Learn techniques to deal with anxiety, depression and to manage intrusive thoughts.
- Understand the importance of talking about your experience and not bottling it up.
- Take the time to process what you have gone through. You have to give yourself the time and space to respond to the suffering, grief or loss—to sit with it, let it percolate and see how it can be coupled by other emotions. Understand the paradox that loss and gain can happen simultaneously, grief and gratitude can also both occur and many other pairings of emotions. A trauma narrative exercise can be a powerful tool to make sense of your experience.
Trauma Narrative Exercise:
Write about your experience considering the following questions:
- What personal strengths were called upon?
- How have your relationships developed and how have your bonds deepened?
- What new doors have opened?
- Has there been a better understanding of spiritual matters?
- Has your sense of appreciation for life itself changed?
- How have you grown and what have you learned?
It is important to note that I am not saying post-traumatic growth implies an absence of distress, nor am I passing any comment on these life events in terms of what is right or wrong, fair or unjust; this is just about dealing with what is.
These events can cause undeniable hurt, but this can occur at the same time or at least be followed by a sense of growth, expansion and transformation.
If you find yourself in the midst of a traumatic event these words may seem hollow, even downright outrageous, the suggestion that anything good could come of your loss, but I urge you to remain open to the possibility.
While loss and tragedy are never welcome happenings, at least something of value may come of them in time.
My personal experience
The day after I had given birth, a week after my father’s breathing failure and all our last goodbyes, I remember feeling completely cracked open like a nut, wondering if I’d ever feel whole again. In some way, with the benefit of a few years’ hindsight, I’d now interpret those feelings as my heart being cracked open and deeply awakened—deeply awakened not only to suffering, but also to a far greater capacity to feel bliss, joy, compassion and equanimity.
Through this experience I have become acutely aware of the fragility and preciousness of life, attuned to the need to savour each tiny moment with greater care, tenderness and presence, to live each moment more fully. Over the years, once the waves of grief had washed over me (and they still do), I have found that this deep sadness is now becoming a profound reservoir of gratitude for my Dad—all he stood for, all he brought to this world.
Now that time and the immediate pain of grief have largely passed, I feel abundant again and the most tangible effect for me is an undeniable call to act on my life purpose with courage, conviction and faith. Living my calling can no longer wait! While it is certainly possible I would have arrived at the same decisions in time, it feels like my sense of loss has propelled me with urgency to live a bigger, more authentic, and ultimately happier life.
Heartbreaking things happen in this world, and suffering at some point is inevitable. As we journey through life we accumulate tragedies, none of which we may forget. Whilse all things decay and die, from them the velvety petals of our heart unfurl and we can learn to embrace our loss while savoring our gratitude for what has come to pass, growing to fully embrace this wonderful life and our human potential.
Love to all, Suz
*For more details of research on post-traumatic growth, see Martin Seligman’s groundbreaking book, Flourish, an essential read for anyone interested in positive psychology and theories of well-being.
Suzy Reading is a qualified psychologist, yoga teacher and personal trainer with an award-winning background in elite sport. She competed as a figure skater for 13 years at a national level in Australia before establishing a thriving boutique personal wellbeing business in the heart of Central London in 2002. Suzy ran this business for over six years, working with a wide variety of clients to achieve psychological and physical wellbeing. In 2009 Suzy relocated back home to Sydney, where she continues to deliver positive results for clients: mind and body. Suzy is available for counselling and coaching sessions at her consulting room in Cammeray, Sydney—home visits and walk and talk sessions by appointment. For more details please see suzyreading.com.au.