Few people get through life without experiencing some sort of traumatic event. And while some will go on to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, most people will grow from the experience.
According to Martin Seligman in his new book "Flourishing", post-traumatic growth is much more prevalent than many people might think.
The normal response to trauma, says Seligman is grief and shock, following by a period of readjustment, and a reappraisal of life. This can take time but if the right conditions are present many people come out of this period with a new perspective and an increase in psychological health.
"A substantial number of people also show intense depression and anxiety after extreme adversity, often to the level of PTSD, but then they grow."
Suffering can make us stronger
Seligman’s research into post-traumatic growth, which is far more prevalent than post traumatic stress disorder, adds weight to Nietzsche’s idea that what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.
Seligman tells the story of US Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum MD, who in 1991 was on a rescue mission in Iraq when her helicopter was shot down. With both her arms and a leg broken, she was captured by Saddam Hussein’s army, brutually beaten and sexually assaulted. She was released after eight days.
The experience changed her – for the better. She reported that she was more able to relate to the suffering of her patients. She felt better equipped to be a leader and she had more appreciation of family and friends.
"While I had always organized my life into the A, B, and C piles of priority, I became much more rigorous about dispensing with the C pile. (I always go to my daughter’s soccer games!)," she said.
Resilience refers to our psychological health – the amount of pressure we can handle without experiencing ill effects.
One of the most important indicators of whether a person will experience post traumatic growth or go on to develop PTSD is their state of mind immediately prior to when the trauma occurred. If a person is already suffering anxiety or depression, they are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder. However if they are psychologically healthy at the time of the trauma, they are more likely to experience psychological upheaval and then growth.
Based on research into what factors contribute to resilience, Seligman developed a list of things that he says could help a person move through trauma in a way that leads to growth. These include:
- Developing an understanding of the normal symptoms of trauma that include a shattering of beliefs about the self, others and the future.
- Learning how to reduce anxiety, by controlling thoughts and images.
- Telling the story about the trauma to someone who will listen and show empathy.
- Creating a trauma narrative. This involves focusing on the strengths that helped the person survive the trauma and a reassessment about what it means to live a good life (usually includes an appreciation of both pain and gain.)
An experienced grief counsellor or therapist who is trained in trauma recovery can provide emotional support and guidance through this process.