How the science of post-traumatic growth revolutionizes our approach to trauma
Myth 1. Trauma is a life sentence
Every survivor I spoke with believed in the beginning that the trauma had destroyed their life forever, and that they would never be happy again.
When doctors and psychiatrists research loss, grief, or trauma, by default they often pay more attention to the patients who suffer the most. However, it is vital to look closely: While many people will suffer from post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of trauma, few will develop full-blown PTSD (so-called post-traumatic stress disorder), and even of those, most will heal with therapy and time.
I believe that we belittle survivors by assuming that they will fail. People can be at their most vulnerable, but still tenacious at the same time.
“What is revealed here is the dual nature of trauma: first, its destructive ability to rob victims of their capacity to live and enjoy life. The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect,” writes Peter A. Levine. “Whether trauma will be a cruel and punishing Gorgon, or a vehicle for soaring to the heights of transformation and mastery, depends upon how we approach it. Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”
University of Minnesota psychologist Ann Masten who has studied resilient children for nearly four decades calls our ability to adapt “ordinary magic."
"We focused on the gloomy for such a long time," Masten said. "It really bothers me that when people hear about the evidence for trauma, child abuse, and in utero exposure to alcohol, they assume, ‘Oh, I must be totally damaged.’ People pick up on this idea, but there are many opportunities for reprogramming in the course of life. Resilience does not mean you don’t have any scars, but I am continuously amazed by the human ability to reinvent ourselves.”
We are stronger than we think.
Myth 2. You only experience trauma after a life-threatening event
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines trauma as involving “actual or threatened death or serious injury,” such as assault, disasters, abuse, or life-threatening illnesses. But “trauma” literally means “wound.” We are hurting.
After working with thousands of survivors, psychologist Richard Tedeschi at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has come to an understanding that differs fundamentally from DSM. “We define trauma not so much by the event itself but by the emotional and psychological effect an event has on people,” he told me when I interviewed him for my book Bouncing Forward. “We look especially at any event that challenges people’s core belief system: People start to question how the world works, what kind of person they are, what kind of life they are living, and what future they have. So it’s not necessarily something that wounds people physically, or where death is an issue.”
One of his clients has a serious cancer that will likely lead to his death. This client assured his doctor that he can deal with the illness, but he feels that the really traumatic event of his life is his divorce. “He almost never talks about the cancer; he always talks about the divorce,” Tedeschi says. “In his world, the divorce made a huge difference and shattered his life. Trauma is in the eye of the beholder, the experiencer.”
For some people, divorce is relief. For some, cancer is a challenge they accept to take on. For some soldiers, combat is the most exciting mission of their lives. However, for others, any of this could drive them over the edge. There is no universal scale for judging another’s pain.
Nobody is invincible, and none of us is resilient in all areas of our lives. It is not always the trauma with a capital T that pull the rug out from under us, but it can be everyday traumas such as a divorce, the loss of a loved one, or a surgery.
Pain is as piercing as we feel it. We never know what will etch itself indelibly into our heart.
Myth 3. Posttraumatic stress is a disorder
Is it a disorder or a type of injury? The Psychiatric Manual classifies PTSD as a mental disorder when it lasts for longer than six months, but Tedeschi prefers to recognize this “disorder” as “actually just an expression of our humanity."
"When someone crashes their car against a wall at 60 miles per hour, they’ll have many broken bones," Tedeschi said. "Do we say they have a broken bone disorder? They have an injury. Same with trauma survivors; they have been injured. Psychologically injured, maybe morally injured. They aren’t disordered; they’re hurt by what has happened. That makes more sense to me.”
I agree with him and the many experts who think that we should get rid of the term PTSD altogether. Why? Because many survivors believe that if they experience anxiety, flashbacks, or depression, there is something wrong with them. In fact, there may be nothing wrong with them, but there is something wrong with what happened to them! And they may very well get out of that abyss with the right support, time, and strategies. But many people feel stigmatized by their “disorder” and don’t therefore seek the help they need.
As Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl famously said, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
Myth 4. If you’re strong, you can make it through the trauma by yourself.
While conducting research for my book Bouncing Forward, I attended the resilience boot camp of the U.S. Army in Philadelphia. I was surprised to find out that one of the first things soldiers learn there is to communicate openly, to admit fears and to ditch the commonly-held belief that “asking for help is a sign of weakness.”
The army has recognized the dangers of projecting only strength. Every day 22 veterans commit suicide—that’s one suicide every 65 minutes. A disproportionate number of people who have a hard time overcoming trauma are people who struggle by themselves, who think they don’t need help, or who bottle up their feelings and hide their anxiety behind an impenetrable façade. Trying desperately “to get it together” can be fatal. In fact, the Rambo-type who thinks asking for support is a weakness is the one most at risk.
Now every soldier carries a phone number that he or she can call at any time, anonymously, when they need help.
For the rest of us, when things get dire and we don’t know where to turn for help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be a lifesaver. Call 1-800-273-8255 FREE in the U.S.
We need to acknowledge the wound, tend to it, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Again and again!
Myth 5. Nothing good ever comes from a traumatic event
It is crucial to distinguish between the event and the outcome. There is nothing positive about trauma itself; we wouldn’t choose it, then or now. There is nothing beneficial about losing a loved one or being diagnosed with cancer. Nevertheless, we might be able to reap something beneficial out of the sorrow.
Contrary to popular opinion, experiencing growth after trauma is far more common than PTSD. The new science of post-traumatic growth has discovered in thousands of studies that up to 90 percent of trauma survivors eventually attest to a renewed zest for life, major empathetic growth, and increased emotional maturity not despite, but because of their painful experiences and sometimes simultaneously with post-traumatic stress. This is a hopeful notion, though this growth does not happen easily, not immediately, and likely not without support. But it is possible. And the belief in our own capacity to find healing and resilience plays a crucial role in this.
The good only comes from what we decide to do with it—from our struggle that unveils what needs to change in us and in our society, from honing our ability to make meaning out of events that seem senseless, from not trying to rebuild an exact replica of what was lost, but to engineer a stronger, sturdier foundation for our life.
As Maya Angelou says, “Nothing will work unless you do.”
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