Poverty. Robbery. Homicide. Divorce. Illness. Sexual abuse. Discrimination. Parental mental illness. War. Domestic violence. Bullying. Parental separation or divorce. The death of a pet. What do all of these — and so many more — have in common?
They could all be traumatic events. It just depends on who experiences the event and how they perceive it.
The only person who can define an event as traumatic is the person who lived through it. An event is traumatic if the person perceived it as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on their functioning and well-being.
Seven out of ten adults — 70% of our entire population — will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.
Out of this 70% of people who experienced a traumatic event — only 8% will meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. PTSD is a mental health disorder. Individuals diagnosed with PTSD experience symptoms like flashbacks, avoidance, guilt, and more, which adversely impacts their functioning and their overall well-being. As a trauma therapist, I’ve worked with this 8% for the last ten years and will continue to do that work forever.
The other 62% are considered resilient, a concept defined as individuals who can maintain stable and healthy levels of functioning following a traumatic event. This group gets back to baseline after a trauma and moves on with their lives.
Today, though, I want to talk about another population I also see in my practice. This population includes a minority of people who actually thrive following a traumatic event — a concept called Post Traumatic Growth.
What are the factors that allow a person to turn the worst moments of their life into exponential growth?
Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl once said -
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
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Who are these people who take on that challenge — the challenge to change themselves — and what we can learn from them?
Traumatic events shake our most basic truths, the anchors of our lives that we take for granted every single day. Basic truths like — I am employed. I am housed. I am safe. I control my body. I am trusting. My children will walk through the door after school today just like they did every other day. My husband will land safely from his business trip tonight at 5:54pm. My mammogram will be normal. My COVID symptoms will be mild. Good things happen to good people. It will never happen to me.
Then it did happen to you. Whatever that “it” was for you — that traumatic event that changed everything — it shattered the very foundation of who you are, what you believe, and how you perceive the world. When the foundation of our very existence is shattered we are left with only one option — and that option is to rebuild.
It is in this foundational rebuilding that profound growth will occur. Why? It’s because uncertainty invites possibility. Yet, we are the ones that must invite possibility into our lives, into our hearts, into our minds, and into our healing.
That is a key to thriving following trauma. It is to move into uncertainty with every ounce of your fear and your worry and your heartache and your grief. It is to examine the darkest corners of that uncertainty with curiosity and intrigue. It is to show yourself unbridled compassion along this journey.
That is terrifying and crucial work. And I beg you not to examine the twists and turns alone or you may lose yourself in that maze. Connect with an anchor — a friend, a therapist, a medium, a support group, a journal — and walk the uncertainty hand-in-hand. Do not go at it alone. As you navigate the uncertainty of your life and personhood, you will encounter thoughts, feelings, and sensations that will deeply trouble you. Some may be uncomfortable and foreign. Others may be familiar. Consider all of your experiences a temporary houseguest. You must not shoo away or welcome inside a houseguest who you have not throughly vetted.
Take a look one of my clients as an example of learning from all experiences following trauma. Let’s call her Chloe.
Chloe was physically abused as a child by her parents, both of whom struggled with serious drug addiction and trauma histories of their own. Chloe started therapy with me to rebuild her foundation after both of her parents died suddenly in a drug overdose. When I met Chloe, it was clear she had thrived following a very difficult childhood. Her goal in therapy was to thrive once again after the death of her parents.
During early therapy sessions, Chloe both described and embodied a wide range of varying thoughts, feelings, and sensations. There were moments when she was undeniably gleeful — “I am finally free”. There were other moments when she was wrung-out with sadness — “I never had a childhood.” Some moments Chloe was rageful — “addiction destroyed my family.”
At the end of a particularly intense meeting, Chloe remarked: “I don’t like the way I feel when I’m resentful or angry or desperately sad. I don’t want my parents death to harden me.”
Right here is a pivotal turning point in the trauma recovery process. Chloe has invited the troubling houseguests into her process — the sadness, the glee, the anger — and treated them with respect, curiosity, and compassion. Ultimately, though, she decided that they were, in fact, unwelcome in her life.
It is in this next question that the foundation of post traumatic-growth starts to solidify: If Chloe did not want the trauma to harden her, then what did she want the trauma to do for her?
When I asked her this, Chloe answered — “I want my parents death to help me stay healthy and grounded. I want it to show me how much power I have to build my life the exact way I envision. I want my parents death to help me enjoy every day of my life, regret free.”
The clarity of this life mission and purpose was only possible through Chloe’s relentless pursuit of her personal truth and the expression of her experiences, even when they distressed her. Behavioral health researchers call this psychological flexibility, or, the ability to face the complexities of the world with openness. This openness then allows for our reactions to align with our core values.
Decades of research promise that we will buckle under the effects of trauma if we avoid our mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional truths. Likewise, we have study after study that show when we face our hardest truths — both in mind and body — we will cultivate new life meaning and personal growth following tragedy.
Times have never been more difficult for some of us here. We all have the potential for wholeness and healing and curiosity and connection. You are not alone and you are loved.
I believe in each and every one of you to embrace your truth and create spaces for others to embrace theirs.
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