Saturday, January 10, 2015

Posttraumatic Growth: An Upside to Trauma?

In the recent years with the number of returning veterans you may have heard about Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.  Among the symptoms are: high anxiety, feeling constantly fearful, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks.   Events that could bring on PTSD include any situation in which life and safety is lost or threatened.   The more frightened and helpless you feel often the more likely to feel traumatized.  

Some examples of emotional or physical events that can cause psychological trauma are: accidents and falls, sudden death of someone close, breakup of a significant relationship, humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, abuse, seeing someone die, being threatened with death, combat, and rape.

Not everyone who experiences trauma will experience life-impairing symptoms great enough to reach a diagnosis of PTSD.  How some people recover or even thrive in the aftermath of a trauma has been increasingly studied.  Studies show that acute stress symptoms are very commonly experienced immediately after extreme trauma situations.  One of the first studies, published in 1980, looked at POWs during Vietnam War.  Sixty-one percent said they had benefited psychologically from their time in captivity.  Studies like these influenced the work of Richard Tedeschi, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who has termed the phrased “Post –Traumatic Growth” to describe the resilience and recovery from trauma.   Studies of Post –Traumatic Growth have found positive individual changes in five areas:

  1. Turning suffering into meaningful action – such as helping others with a similar illness or     standing up for other victims
  2.  Developing deeper relationships and greater compassion for others
  3. Feeling strengthened to meet future challenges
  4. Reordered priorities for fuller appreciation of life
  5. Deepening spirituality.

Tedeschi explains that “Only a seismic event—not just an upsetting experience—can lead to this kind of growth.”  Tedeschi is referring to the kind of event that “shakes you to the core and causes you to question your assumptions about yourself and the world.”  Tragic events can awaken us to what really matters in life and inspire us to redefine our identity, to reorder our priorities, and to take initiative in caring actions to benefit others.
How Do We Go On In the Aftermath of Traumatic Loss?  

You can bounce back from tough times in life and yes-even trauma.  In his well-known book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl wrote about how he and other survivors went on with life.  Frankl found the key to be not searching for happiness, but finding a reason to be happy despite the suffering. 

It’s important to know that distress is typical when we face traumatic events.  Even those who are able to find reasons to be happy despite suffering does not mean they did not suffer.  Tedeschi is careful to point out that he is in no way implying that traumatic events are good and that Post –Traumatic Growth is not universal.   Many people need to work through natural responses to trauma like guilt, shame and blame.   Counseling and Psychotherapy can help someone work through negative emotions and help individuals, groups, and organizations in the recovery process.