The enduring impact of a traumatic or life-threatening event like a car accident, assault, combat, witnessing the death or near death of another person, natural or man-made disaster, or chronic abuse can significantly change your life both physically and emotionally. It can test your view of the world and your ability to cope, and in some cases, may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
You may experience some or all of the common symptoms of PTSD, including:
- Intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of the traumatic event
- Avoidance of situations that remind you of the trauma
- Diminished interest in activities and relationships
- A feeling of overall emotional numbness or irritability and anger
- Trouble concentrating and sleeping
- A general feeling the world is not safe.
These symptoms are normal reactions to a traumatic event, however, if they persist beyond 3 to 4 weeks after the trauma or are particularly debilitating, seek help from a mental health professional experienced in treating trauma.
What Is Post Traumatic Growth?
There is a growing body of research that suggests that, for some people, with the passage of time, positive changes may emerge after experiencing a traumatic event. In their groundbreaking research with Vietnam veterans and primary and secondary victims of serious and violent crime, Tedeschi and Calhoun noticed that in the wake of these traumatic events many of their research participants were able to experience growth and reclaim a sense of wellbeing.
They coined the term post-traumatic growth (PTG) to describe these experiences and identified five general areas where growth can take place after a traumatic event, including:
- Reassessing one’s philosophy of life
- Identifying new possibilities for the future
- Appreciating one’s personal strengths and how they were employed to survive or cope with the trauma
- Experiencing a new spiritual awareness and appreciation for life
- Engaging in new and improved relationships with others
Understanding the concept of post-traumatic growth can provide a language that can help people who experience trauma understand and express the positive changes that can take place in the wake of the experience. These changes can be empowering and healing and lessen feelings of depression, isolation, and anxiety. They can also increase levels of confidence and positive emotions.
The concept of post-traumatic growth is not meant to suggest that experiencing a traumatic or life-threatening event is easy to recover from or that there is a defined timeline for healing and recovery. Instead it provides a context through which to balance the negative aspects of the experience against the potential for positive growth.
Employing Hope, Evidence-Based Therapies, and Resources
While it may seem counterintuitive, strength and weakness, joy and sorrow, triumph and struggle, and hope and despair can live side by side. These 3 steps may help you start on the path of healing:
1. Work to reframe the traumatic experience to allow for the positive to sit alongside the negative.
While you grieve a loss you can also recognize what you learned about yourself, who you have come to value in a new way, and how you can take advantage of the new opportunities that now lie ahead - opportunities that may include asking for support from loved ones, working on behalf of a cause you believe in or helping others in need by volunteering, or seeking help from a mental health professional.
2. Recognize and affirm the personal resources or strengths you brought to the situation.
You may be able overcome the negative impact of your trauma by relying on strengths you never thought you possessed or had to use before, such as courage, prudence, patience, trust in others, and hope. Often it is the decisions you made at the time of the traumatic event using resources such as courage or prudence that guided you and helped you survive. That’s why you should focus on them. These strengths served you well and knowing you can call upon them again if needed can help you feel less vulnerable and provide you with a sense of personal control—an important feature of healing.
3. Give yourself permission to heal.
The emotional aftermath of trauma can temporarily plunge you into a new world with unclear rules and a fleeting sense of control. However, with time and the willingness to accept that significant positive growth can potentially take place in the aftermath of even the most horrific event, it is possible to heal. In short, make some room next to the post-traumatic stress for post-traumatic growth.
To find out more about PTSD and get additional resources, visit www.ptsd.va.gov.