Post Traumatic Growth
The human capacity for post traumatic growth is incredible. As a counselor and Denver therapist, I see this first hand. I’ve met many people who’ve lived through truly horrible experiences — the kind we all hope we will never have to face — and I can tell you that they often come out the other side not only in one piece, but having experienced deep, meaningful personal growth that touches every part of their lives.
People who’ve lived through trauma often find more strength and resilience inside of themselves than they ever suspected they had. Many develop a heightened appreciation for their loved ones, and a capacity to love more deeply and unconditionally than before. It’s also very common to discover greater meaning, purpose, and contentment with everyday life after trauma or tragedy.
If you’ve experienced trauma in your own life, the last thing I would ever do is tell you that whatever you’ve lived through is “all for the best” (barf!). This article is not about why trauma isn’t awful — it’s about how the reality that trauma is awful can and does coexist with the reality that trauma recovery offers profound gifts to many people. I hope it can help you look for the gifts in your own experiences and reap the rewards of post traumatic growth. You deserve nothing less.
If you would prefer to listen, I have also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on post traumatic growth. You can listen here (player below), or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
What Is Trauma?
Traumas large and small will happen to every one of us at some point in our lives. It could be the capital-T traumas that we all know and recognize, like what soldiers in combat or the survivors of terrible accidents often experience. But many people live through quieter forms of trauma, like devastating breakups, or traumatic betrayals by someone they loved and trusted. Relational traumas like these are often minimized or overlooked, even by the people who’ve experienced them, but psychologically they are very real. Any experience that leaves you feeling frightened, powerless, unsafe, or overwhelmed can trigger a trauma response.
Your brain records traumatic memories differently. You might be able to clearly remember an awful moment from 20 years ago, down to the shoes you had on and what the air smelled like. The emotional landscape of these memories can also be quite vivid. You might feel fear, shame, paralysis, or sickness, as if the trauma was happening in the present.
Understandably, trauma survivors often feel compelled to avoid anything that could trigger these memories. They may refuse to go to certain places, talk about certain subjects, or even listen to certain songs — anything they associate with the trauma. Internal avoidance is also common, like when people drink too much or use drugs to avoid feeling their feelings.
Healing From Trauma, Leaning into Post Traumatic Growth
Unfortunately, avoiding traumatic memories does not make them go away. To heal from trauma, these memories need to be safely reprocessed, ideally with the support of a good trauma-informed therapist. Techniques like EMDR, trauma-focused CBT, exposure therapies, and somatic therapies have all been shown to be very helpful.
A word of warning: Make sure that whoever you see for trauma recovery is a clinician with a license to provide mental health treatment. Be very wary of life coaches, or anyone who offers to do trauma recovery work online. This is an instance where the wrong kind of help can actually make things worse, so you want to put some time into finding a good therapist.
What Is Post-Traumatic Growth?
People on the other side of healing from trauma often describe feeling more present, grateful for small things, loving more deeply, and feeling that they have more depth and purpose in their lives. They feel that their relationships are more satisfying, and that they take more pleasure in life. Many also describe feeling that they are stronger, more compassionate, and more capable of love. Even more report having the belief that their lives transformed because of their trauma, creating beauty, strength, spirituality, and meaning that they hadn’t had before.
This is the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth. Research supports the fact that people’s lives don’t end because of tragedy. More often, they are actually reborn. People are resilient, courageous, and inspiring — and the trajectory of their lives show it. They go on to write new chapters, have new experiences, and live and grow in ways that may not have been possible before.
Examples of Post Traumatic Growth
For example, a person who receives an aggressive cancer diagnosis and then survives may feel like their life is a miracle. They may have a heightened appreciation for every day, and every opportunity to connect with their loved ones. They may discover new depths of meaning and purpose in supporting other people who are battling cancer.
None of this negates how traumatic it was to receive a scary diagnosis and undergo brutal cancer treatments. In fact, the person may still experience symptoms of PTSD (like anxiety, nightmares, or avoidance), while also reaping the benefits of post-traumatic growth.
Many people experience significant personal growth after a relationship loss. Even though a divorce or a breakup can mangle your self-esteem and break your heart, they can also teach you much more about relationships and about yourself than you would ever know without that experience. Healing and moving forward is a painful process indeed, but it is so worth it. That’s why it’s common for people to look back a few years down the road and say that their terrible breakup was a good thing and they’re glad it happened.
How to Benefit from Post Traumatic Growth
Post-traumatic growth is an active process, and there are a few things that you can do to benefit from it. These are not steps that you have to do in addition to healing — they actually are the path to healing from trauma.
- Have self-compassion
One of the most important things you can do as you recover from trauma is to treat yourself with the mindful self-compassion you deserve. That starts with validating the traumatic nature of what happened to you — not minimizing it or telling yourself that you shouldn’t feel how you feel. Self-validation is even more important when you’re dealing with a trauma that other people don’t readily recognize and validate.
- Make space for grief
Grief is a common response to trauma, especially if it forces you to adjust to new life circumstances. When you push that grief away by avoiding your feelings about the traumatic experience, you stay stuck. To move forward, you need to allow those feelings to flow through you as you adjust to life after loss.
- Search for meaning
Making meaning out of your experiences is the key to post traumatic growth (and personal growth in general). It starts with developing a narrative about what happened, why it happened, what it means to you, how it changed what you believe about life and about yourself, and what you want to happen next. Actively constructing your own story out of your own experiences can be incredibly empowering and can help you feel safe and restore hope after trauma.
- Don’t force growth
The last thing I would encourage you to do if you’ve experienced trauma is to beat yourself up for not wringing enough personal growth from the experience. Focus instead on healing, restoring your sense of peace and security, and addressing symptoms of PTSD. That is the most important thing you can do right now.
- Get help
If you are dealing with the effects of trauma, you shouldn’t have to do it alone. And unfortunately, you might not be able to. Trauma does not get better with time. The process of healing from trauma is counterintuitive — it feels like you should avoid traumatic memories, when you actually need safe exposure to them. Seeking support from a good trauma informed therapist is the best way for you to begin healing now.
Support for Post Traumatic Growth in Denver and Boulder
I hope this article gave you a new perspective on the legacy of trauma and the possibilities of recovery. With the right support, I know that you can not only cope, but thrive after trauma. If you haven’t already listened to this episode, I hope you will. It has even more information for you on this important topic.
And if you are located in the Denver or Boulder area and would like to meet with a trauma-informed therapist on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — For more advice on transforming difficult experiences into powerful growth, check out my “emotional wellness” collection of articles and podcasts.
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.