In a recent article on Post-Traumatic Growth I discussed the affect of trauma on personal growth. Outcomes of trauma include such things as deeper relationships, spiritual development, more personal strength, new opportunities, and a greater appreciation for life in general. So how does that happen?
Stages of Post-Traumatic Growth
Part 1: “Shattered”
When tragedy occurs, the effect is like an earthquake that shatters all of our assumptions. Any sense of safety or predictability in life is lost. Religious beliefs can be threatened–out of anger or disillusionment many withdraw from their faith groups and lose that support as well. Physical trauma can mean loss of work, and with that a loss of identity or life purpose. This is amplified a thousand times when a parent loses a child. Loss of any loved one means that the future is shattered, and all the dreams that were shared are gone. This is called the “assumptive world” and it includes all of our beliefs, dreams, and comforts. With tragedy, this assumptive world is devastated.
Part 2: “Ruminating”
There is an incredible amount of processing of “ruminating” that happens after trauma. Questions begin to flow: Why did this happen? How it could have been prevented. Who is to blame? Is any ‘meaning’ to be found out of this? What will happen next? Emotions range from sadness to anger, fear, and even guilt for being “the survivor” or for not doing “enough” in some way. It’s in this stage that the person struggles against the reality of all the loss and all of the change.
Surprisingly it’s not primarily the optimistic people who grow the most from loss. Nor is it the most “resilient” people. In fact, if you have depression, anxieties, phobias, or a negative attitude, you are about as likely to grow from trauma as someone without these traits. In terms of personality traits there were only a couple that seemed related to growth. Those were extraversion and openness to feelings. To be open to feeling the full weight of sorrow, without avoidance or distraction, and to be willing to share some piece of this experience makes a difference long-term.
More than any personal trait, it seems that the length of the rumination period is the key for growth. It can’t be rushed. In fact, any attempt to “get over it quick” or suppress the emotions turns out to be more harmful in the long run. This cognitive processing needs to occur, and has to last a while (probably months, but not years) for a person to experience post-traumatic growth. The processing period has to be long enough to accomplish two things: 1. examine and acknowledge the impact on yourself, and 2. come to some resolution that is coherent and perhaps even positive in some way. The resolution must contain more acceptance than regret.
Part 3: “Rebuilding”
In the ruminating period there was a battle between regret and acceptance. According to research, people who get “stuck” are those that continue to have counter-factual thinking: “If only this happened instead of that…”, etc. Those that find a way to accept the change now begin to rebuild. In the rebuilding stage, you have disengaged from old goals and started creating new ones.
Many discover that they are carrying opposites within themselves. New personal strengths live side by side with a strong sense of their own vulnerability. Experiences that should drive a person into a life of fear and caution often create the opposite: an unexpected shot of courage. Closed doors cause new ones to open. New limitations demand creativity, from which new freedoms and opportunities arise. Always, there is deep sense of loss, but now it somehow coexists with a new-found appreciation for the simple joys of living.