Trauma symptoms arise when a stressor exceeds our ability to cope in that moment; it is when we move from manageable discomfort that we can respond to, into overwhelming or intolerable pain. In a stressful situation, our nervous system responds by energizing us into fight or flight mode; we confront the challenge, or seek safety. An adaptive response from our nervous system enables us to maintain a sense of confidence and safety during and after a stressful event. In trauma, we lose our sense of safety, and our inability to cope challenges our confidence. With post-traumatic stress, our nervous system might remain in that fear state, or become frequently triggered into overwhelm like it felt during the original trauma, even if we are objectively safe.
One thing I’ve learned in my work as a trauma specialist is that people are really, amazingly, resilient. It is seriously inspiring and it is part of why I love my job. But resilience doesn’t always look the way you might expect. Growth, as we all know, is not linear.
Sometimes, we see resilience in the immediate response to a traumatic event or stressor. When our nervous systems are working well for us, we are capable of so much! At other times, the resilience comes later. Even if we have experienced maladaptive nervous system responses to stressors, that trauma is something we truly can heal and grow from at any point in the future. We don’t have to just “push through.” Even if the pain we encountered made us shut down, break down, suffer from panic attacks or act out with harmful behaviors – regardless of how strong, or graceful, or resilient we think we were or weren’t – we all possess the capacity for resilience and the ability to heal our nervous systems (often with the help of treatment), to stop suffering from the effects of trauma, and even to experience growth.
Post-traumatic growth can happen as a result of the resilience we must access after experiencing trauma. It describes the same idea as the well-known expression, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” But it’s a special kind of strength. The concept of post-traumatic growth isn’t that trauma somehow benefits us, and it isn’t meant to be a silver lining on a painful experience. Rather, it suggests that sometimes we experience something beyond just resilience, beyond healing even: meaningful growth following our recovery from trauma. Imagine if after a physical injury, you not only recovered, but felt like you had increased your strength, agility, or abilities in a significant way during the recovery process. You still went through something painful and might wish it had never happened, and you might have grief surrounding what you went through; yet you can also move forward with new capacities that you can deeply appreciate. The same can be true with our mental health and growth after trauma.
Sometimes healing does more than just resolve our symptoms; sometimes it teaches us valuable lessons, and gives us new strength or connections that were forged in the recovery process. Just as stressors do not always lead to trauma symptoms, healing from trauma does not always lead to post-traumatic growth – but in my experience with clients going through EMDR, it often does. And it helps to let people know that this is a real possibility to feel this way following trauma – it is encouraging and hopeful.
So what exactly does post-traumatic growth (PTG) look like?
Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun developed the theory of PTG in the 90’s and identified five key areas of growth:
- Appreciation of life
- Relationships with others
- New possibilities in life
- Personal strength
- Spiritual change
There’s also some research on what traits make people most likely to experience PTG, identifying two key traits that are most often associated with PTG: openness to experience, and extraversion. When I learned this, my first thought was about my teen clients. Adolescence is developmentally a time of openness and extraversion – a time of new experiences, seeking social connections and relationships. All of us are capable of healing and PTG, but I want to emphasize due to the high level of crisis and concern for our kids- they are built for resiliency and perfect candidates to experience post-traumatic growth. Given that this entire generation has been exposed to some degree of trauma through the COVID pandemic, I find this idea to be so reassuring and hopeful, and I want parents to be aware of it and nurture this in their kids.
In order to achieve that growth, we need to gain some amount of self-awareness, resilience, and healing – we need to learn about and recognize our symptoms as our nervous system’s response to trauma (not personal deficits or weakness), we need connection and social support (not judgment or isolation, in spite of the instinct many of us have to hide under our covers when we feel badly), and we might need the help of a mental health professional (talking with a friend is helpful, but processing and learning coping skills with a therapist is different and often needed). If you or your children need support processing and healing, please reach out to a trauma-informed therapist. Or, if you are looking for a deeper understanding of trauma to build your awareness and begin healing, you might like one of these books: The Body Keeps the Score (Van der Kolk), Getting Past your Past (Shapiro), Waking the Tiger (Levine).
If you’re already farther along in the healing process and want ways to notice or encourage growth for yourself or your kids:
- Reflect on the qualities that have contributed to your/others’ resiliency
- Write, draw, or talk about any changes you’ve noticed in yourself or your loved ones in the five areas of PTG – this goes one step further than thinking about it, self expression is active and helps build and reinforce positive emotions surrounding the changes
- Practice exercises that encourage the five areas identified above: keep a gratitude list, connect often with friends and encourage social activities for your kids, develop or maintain spiritual practices that feel personally meaningful, engage in activities that utilize your new strengths, think/ talk/write/draw about positive visions of the future
*Also, you can combine multiple categories into one practice with things like going to a meditation class with a friend, or saying gratitudes one at a time around the dinner table each night with family
Trauma can leave a lasting impact and a legacy of pain. Yet what I see from working through the effects of trauma with so many of my clients, is that it really is possible to heal, and to find meaning and growth through and after the healing process.