Post-traumatic growth: turning suffering into positive change

luc

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I just finished the book Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic growth - I think it's really interesting and an easy, compelling read. The author presents many intriguing stories about people who have grown tremendously from a traumatic experience as well as the current research on the topic. It also provides a short (but good IMO) introduction into what trauma is and how the body reacts to it.

The gist of the book is that studies and personal stories alike show that many people who experienced trauma (even severe trauma) can grow dramatically from this experience, finding new meaning and turning their lives around completely for the better. A common feature of what is known as post-traumatic growth is that these people found a way to use their experience and the resulting PTSD to help others - like founding organizations, quitting their jobs, becoming volunteers etc.; they can become exceptionally driven and focused on serving others and achieve high levels of lasting, genuine happiness as a consequence. The 'serving others' aspect doesn't always have to do with their specific trauma per se, but the willingness to open up, share and help others seems to be one of the keys.

One researcher quoted in the book puts it like this:

Growth is a rethinking, a reassessment of yourself and the world. You don’t need to go through that if everything still makes sense to you,” Tedeschi says. “If a person is like a building built to a high standard to withstand an earthquake, if the quake comes and the building is still standing, you are okay. But if the building suffers damage, it has to be rebuilt and the rebuilding is the growth.
Not everyone grows from traumatic experiences. But those who do are able to see that the horror and misery of trauma also create the opening for change, just as Delp saw that he had an opportunity to create a whole new way of living after his old life was stripped away by the accident and his paralysis. “The challenge is to see the opportunity presented by this seismic event. In the aftermath of the earthquake, why not build something better? Don’t just live beneath the rubble, don’t just build the same crappy building that you had before,” says Tedeschi.

It doesn’t matter much what the event is. In order for an event to spur growth, what matters is that it shakes the person to the core, and that can occur in an incredible variety of ways. “We define trauma in terms of its effect on the individual more than a particular event,” says Tedeschi. “We think that the subjective appraisal of the impact of the event is going to tell you a lot more about the effect than what kind of event it was.”

I think this fits well with Dabrowski's theory of positive disintegration: basically, if you experienced something terrible/intense pain in one form or another, you have three choices: you can become bitter and resentful (and miserable), you can learn to cope and become kind of functional in life again, or you can use this experience to change and become a better person. It's interesting to note that (according to the book) the research consistently shows that about 50% of trauma survivors experience some form of growth in the long run.

The author distilled the following features of post-traumatic growth in a roundabout way - this certainly reflects my own experience with dealing with trauma:

1. Learning to cope
The first reaction to trauma/PTSD is to avoid anything that triggers it. Of course, this is not really a solution, but a normal and to a degree healthy reaction to 'make it through'. At this stage, behavioral therapy seems to help a lot: guiding the victim through their experiences again and again so that the memory doesn't hit them so hard anymore overtime. It's about expressing and allowing the feelings of guilt, shame, horror etc. to manifest and to lose the fear of those reactions.

2. Deliberate rumination
The next steps is about changing one's narrative, or what the author calls "deliberate rumination". It's the stage where survivors dwell on their experience, look at it from all angles, and try to figure out which of their feelings/thoughts are justified and which are not. Those who experience post-traumatic growth will find meaning behind their traumatic story over time, which can change their whole outlook on life.

3. Factors that help post-traumatic growth

The author presents a few common themes present in those who grow from their traumatic experiences:
  • Relying on others: having a strong (and good) support network is one of the keys to get past the stage of mayhem.
  • Expressing yourself: growth requires honest communication.
  • Looking for the positive: a healthy dose of optimism seems to help as well.
  • Finding meaning in faith: religious people are good candidates for post-traumatic growth because they - after going through a period of doubting their fate, i.e. "why does god does something like this to me" - naturally look for spiritual meaning in what happened, as opposed to say a nihilistic atheist.
  • Opening up to new experiences: creative expression seems to help as well and may open up new pathways for growth.
  • Bonding with those who get it: support groups where people can speak safely about their experiences to others who understand them can really help people not only to deal with the pain, but to find new meaning and experience the power of helping others.
Although post-traumatic growth is not really surprising and nothing new, I found the book/concept very inspiring. It also reminds me of Gurdjieff's concept of "conscious suffering" - this could be thought of as a way to voluntarily suffer trauma and grow from this experience. It could also mean to stop denying one's own suffering and that of others and really take it in - seeing the horror of the situation, so to speak. This then leads to a form of PTSD, which we then can use to grow, roughly following the steps outlined above.

It's also interesting that the concept of post-traumatic growth only recently gained some traction; for years, the researchers in that field were underfunded and ridiculed - the concept doesn't sit well with many traditional psychologists/psychartrists who see things like PTSD more like a disease that needs to be fixed rather than an experience that - despite the horror and pain - carries deep meaning and tremendous potential.

Here's a short article from Psychology Today that presents the basic idea of post-traumatic growth:

Suffering is universal: you attempt to subvert it so that it does not have a destructive, negative effect. You turn it around so that it becomes a creative, positive force.’ Those are the words of Terry Waite who survived four years in solitary confinement, chained, beaten and subject to mock execution.

Interest in how trauma can be a catalyst for positive changes began to take hold during the mid 1990’s when the term posttraumatic growth was introduced by two pioneering scholars Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun.

The term posttraumatic growth proved to be popular and has since developed into one of the flagship topics for positive psychology.

In my book What Doesn't Kill Us I describe how after experiencing a traumatic event, people often report three ways in which their psychological functioning increases:

1. Relationships are enhanced in some way. For example, people describe that they come to value their friends and family more, feel an increased sense of compassion for others and a longing for more intimate relationships.

2. People change their views of themselves in some way. For example, developing in wisdom, personal strength and gratitude, perhaps coupled with a greater acceptance of their vulnerabilities and limitations.

3. People describe changes in their life philosophy. For example, finding a fresh appreciation for each new day and re-evaluating their understanding of what really matters in life, becoming less materialistic and more able to live in the present.

Importantly, and this just can’t be emphasised enough, this does not mean that trauma is not also destructive and distressing. No one welcomes adversity. But the research evidence shows us that over time people can find benefits in their struggle with adversity. Indeed, across a large number of studies of people who have experienced a wide range of negative events, estimates are that between 30 and 70% typically report some form of positive change

We can all use this knowledge to help us cope when adversity does strike, be it bereavement, accident or illness. We can seek to live more wisely in the aftermath of adversity and as the opening quote says, subvert suffering.
 

Luks

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Hey luc. Thanks for the thread. The matter of trauma is essential to one's emotional growth.

You wrote:

Although post-traumatic growth is not really surprising and nothing new, I found the book/concept very inspiring. It also reminds me of Gurdjieff's concept of "conscious suffering" - this could be thought of as a way to voluntarily suffer trauma and grow from this experience. It could also mean to stop denying one's own suffering and that of others and really take it in - seeing the horror of the situation, so to speak. This then leads to a form of PTSD, which we then can use to grow, roughly following the steps outlined above.

I gathered knowledge and my thoughts about this and I would like to propose some concept of trauma in the context of the work on self.

So, step by step... Some bad situation has a place. Some accident happened. Next, two things can be observe:

1. That situation doesn't provoke emotional reaction (emotional center doesn't produce energy).

2. That situation provokes emotional reaction (emotional center produces negative emotional energy).

Next:

1.1. One doesn't have emotional center or emotional center doesn't work in correct way.

1.2. One is integrated on the level which give he/she defence before that negative experience.

2.1. One takes that emotional charge and allow to self to feel that negative emotional energy. It put one in painful state. That state continues through some time until energy (which emotional center created) will be expended. After, when that energy has been spent, one comes back to the normal state.

2.2. One takes that emotional charge but don't allow to feel this negative emotions, on the energetic level, that negative emotional energy can't be dispose off naturally. One mourne before feeling negative emotions. And this is beginning of arises of trauma.

What when negative emotional energy can't be utilized?:

2.2.1. On the energetic lvl, if the energy generated by emotional center will not be spended in the border of emotional center then two things can happen. The first is that, energy will be transfered to the body/moving center. This is the moment when we can start speak about trauma. The negative after-effects of some hard situation had been suppresed and transfered to unconscious part of the person.

In consequence it can lead to lack of self-confident, problems with health, different states of panic, neurosis, depression. One may even doesn't know that he/she is traumatized and feeling all of the conseqences, can't find the cure.

2.2.2. The second way of the transfusion of the negative energy is by transference the energy from emotional center to the intellectual center. In that state one can be free of depression, be healthy, but illness appears as the intrusive thoughts and dissociation. The emotional thinking ruling his/her mind, coming to the traumatic situation trying to rise above that situation, by diminishing object which induced pain and put himself higher than object. And in the case when there were no other person or people, blaming the circumstances and other outside factors and put oneself over situation as the innocent of occured situation.

In the situation when one has low moral principles then he/she may go to psychical or physical attack for revenge or to back and rise above some situation, which is similiar to that from the past.

The above examples are examples of the mechanical suffering. To the real growth from trauma, the energy has to come back to the emotional center and there be utilized. The first thing is to be conscious of the trauma and energy acumulated in the body and draw it to the conscious awarness.

Then possible is to allow to conscious suffering by stop one's narration of the traumatic situation and approach closer to the real emotions hidden behind that narration, and this time allow little by little release that energy allowing for pass through negative feelings, what had been prevented in the past.


What to do to be immune to trauma? People say about collecting nice feelings, nice situations, moments of happiness. It is counter intuitive, but one should also collecting negative emotions. Search for those situations which produce negative emotions, like some unpleasure tasks from daily life, working, learning, social situations, but instead widthraw or build narration which seperate us from feeling negative emotions, feel them entire and despite this stay on the chosen track.
 

luc

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lux said:
The above examples are examples of the mechanical suffering. To the real growth from trauma, the energy has to come back to the emotional center and there be utilized. The first thing is to be conscious of the trauma and energy acumulated in the body and draw it to the conscious awarness.

Then possible is to allow to conscious suffering by stop one's narration of the traumatic situation and approach closer to the real emotions hidden behind that narration, and this time allow little by little release that energy allowing for pass through negative feelings, what had been prevented in the past.

Hi lux, I think you are onto something here and your description of how our various centers may deal with trauma seems spot on to me. I guess it's not always a step-by-step process, everything you describe may happen in a different order or may be mixed up completely. But I think you outlined it very well.

The idea of the various centers and their energies also seems to be in line with science, as far as I can tell - we know, for example, that trauma is also stored in the body, that our emotional states are related to specific chemicals and their interactions with our cells, and that we have an unconscious system - "system 1" as Daniel Kahnemann calls it - that pretty much runs the show and is connected to our "molecules of emotion" and other bodily functions.

Now if there's a shock to the system, i.e. trauma, all kinds of things can happen - in case of post-traumatic growth, for example, our conscious mind/"system 2" can be forced to "kick in" and sort out the situation, reprogramming our "system 1", leading to new ways of thinking and behaving (this may be what in the book is referred to as "deliberate rumination"). This could be seen as a proper use of negative emotional energy.

If, on the other hand, the shock just disrupts the bodily/emotional system without us dealing with it consciously, the energy is not properly used and just makes us miserable, our "system 2" comes up with justifications and narratives, while our behavior is driven by bodily functions where the trauma runs amok without us being aware of it or dealing with it properly. We may become bitter and hostile and so on, or even depressed and suicidal - it is what Dabrowski calls "unilevel disintegration", where we fall into a lower level of being as a consequence of shocks.

So I would say it depends on all our "systems" - body, emotions, intellect - whether we grow from a negative experience or not. Maybe the spark for growth must come from our intellect/"system 2" though - a conscious desire to understand what happened, to deal with it, and develop a new outlook on life.


lux said:
What to do to be immune to trauma? People say about collecting nice feelings, nice situations, moments of happiness. It is counter intuitive, but one should also collecting negative emotions. Search for those situations which produce negative emotions, like some unpleasure tasks from daily life, working, learning, social situations, but instead widthraw or build narration which seperate us from feeling negative emotions, feel them entire and despite this stay on the chosen track.

Indeed - a spirit of "seeking out negative emotions" is very helpful for us to grow IMO. However, I think the negative emotions that we subject ourselves to voluntarily must have some sense, some direction - like doing something useful, confronting something that holds us back, seeking out new and uncomfortable situations from which we can learn and so on. Suffering for the sake of suffering is not good advice I think, and we know that we can even become addicted to suffering!

Fwiw
 
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