There’s a common misconception surrounding trauma. We assume that after someone experiences trauma, they might develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or return to their old life.
But many individuals also experience something else: positive change. In fact, in 1996 psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term “post-traumatic growth” to describe this phenomenon (in this paper).
In the book Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth , journalist Jim Rendon writes: “In study after study, research shows that about half or more trauma survivors report positive changes as a result of their experience. Sometimes these are small changes — they feel that life has more meaning, that they are closer to their loved ones. For some the changes are life-altering, sending people on career and life paths they never would have considered before, transforming who they are and how they view the world.”
In Upside, an inspiring, empowering and well-researched book, Rendon shares these transformative stories, along with the latest research on what fosters post-traumatic growth.
For instance, Rendon tells the story of Shane Mullins, who lives in Ireland. Ten years ago, Mullins suffered a traumatic brain injury after he ran his car off the road and a stone pillar struck his head. For months Mullins was on a feeding tube, confined to a wheelchair and had trouble saying what he wanted to say.
Thankfully, he learned to walk, and his speech improved. When he finally got home, Mullins tried to return to his old life. That included drinking with his buddies (his binge drinking caused him to lose control of his car). But it wasn’t the same. Just a few drinks wreaked havoc on his brain and balance. He struggled with depression and even considered suicide.
Mullins sought help for his drinking at an inpatient facility for people with brain injuries. He started learning more about his brain injury and seeing a therapist. He also decided to make major changes in his life: Previously a high school dropout, Mullins decided to attend college. With the help of a teacher, he created a presentation about his story and the resources that helped him change his life. He’s given this presentation to youth groups, schools and organizations all over Ireland.
Rendon also tells the story of Samantha Watson. In her 20s, Watson was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy, which battered her body. After she returned to school, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a precursor to leukemia. Her previous chemotherapy had caused her body to create new cancer cells. She needed a bone marrow transplant, which she received. But her recovery was long. She needed two or three blood transfusions a day. When she was out of the hospital, she spent every day taking 46 medications, throwing up and trying to eat.
In 2003, Watson attended a conference for young adult survivors of cancer, which gave her clarity. That year she started Surviving and Moving Forward: The SAM-Fund for Young Adult Survivors of Cancer. She even pursued her master’s degree in nonprofit management to learn how to manage her organization. Since then it’s distributed over $1.1 million in grants. Today, Watson also is happily married and has two children.
So how are many trauma survivors able to grow and lead meaningful lives?
One key is creating a new narrative: When individuals experience trauma, they start telling themselves stories of hopelessness. It’s important for survivors to reframe these limiting stories. This involves integrating the trauma into their lives.
It also involves doing something called “deliberate rumination.” According to Rendon, “When someone is deliberately ruminating on a problem, he is actively involved in thinking about how the event has impacted him, what it means for him, and how he can live his life going forward given the challenges that the event has posed.” This is the way, he writes, that people start to rebuild themselves.
He further explains, “Deliberate rumination is at the heart of growth. It’s an important process that allows trauma survivors to find new narratives for their lives, new ways of understanding their strengths and possibilities, and more meaningful ways to live.”
Another key is social support, which many studies have substantiated is critical. (For instance, see this study and this one.) The most helpful support is when loved ones let trauma survivors find their own path and support them through the process.
Writing also is powerful because it helps survivors make sense of the trauma. Researcher James Pennebaker coined the term “expressive writing,” and has been studying its benefits for several decades. (See here and here.)
As Rendon writes, “Life-threatening events activate the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. Those memories are red hot with emotion but can lack language and context. Writing helps survivors to label the experience, attaching language to it that allows survivors to understand and process the event instead of leaving it as some alert adrift in our neural wiring. Once that’s done, people can assign it meaning, some level of coherence, and give the event a structure and place in their lives.”
Post-traumatic growth isn’t about achieving some happily ever after. It also doesn’t mean that people stop struggling. Because of his brain injury, Mullins struggles daily. He’s lost vision in his left eye, has issues with balance, gets exhausted easily and is unable to work. However, as he said: “…I’m very happy with the new person I’ve become. My interests in life have totally changed and I’ve found the right road. I’m working towards my goals and that feels good.”
In other words, trauma doesn’t leave us unscathed, even if we’ve transformed. But at the same time, many, many people find real meaning and fulfillment. They gain inner strength and cultivate closer relationships. They find purpose and even joy.
“Not everyone grows from trauma,” Rendon writes. “But for most of us, the opportunity is there.”
If you’d like to learn more about Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, check out our review on Psych Central.
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