You get into a car accident with serious injuries and now have panic attacks when getting into a car. You finally get out of a relationship filled with physical abuse only to find yourself experiencing nightmares and memories that regularly flash across your mind. A family member sexually abuses you as a child, and you avoid romantic relationships and experience extreme anxiety when getting close to anyone of romantic interest.
These are just a few examples of how trauma can interrupt our lives and cause us to feel as if our very selves have been robbed. In this aftermath, it is ubiquitous to believe that trauma has destroyed your life forever and you will never be happy again. For many, this is the feeling, rightfully so. Surprisingly, there is increasing research that shows people often recover and sometimes even thrive.
The devastating effects of trauma are often talked about and should be respected and validated, but there is another possibility that gets neglected. That’s the gray lining (not quite silver due to circumstance) that may accompany trauma. Researchers have called it post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is defined as “positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.”1.
These changes can take various forms but often follow five common themes.
1. New Opportunities. People sometimes experience a sense that new opportunities for their lives have opened through their struggle and pain with overcoming the trauma that has occurred. This experience with trauma can bring a new meaning to life that can allow new possibilities to open that may not have been present before.
2. Relationship Growth. Trauma often disrupts people’s relationships in its aftermath. However, some people report experiencing a deepening of relationships with safe people in their lives as well as an increase in connection and empathy to others who experience suffering.
3. Gratitude. Having a deeper appreciation for life or a general feeling of gratitude that they feel was enhanced through their trauma.
4. Spirituality. People also find their spiritual or religious lives are enriched in response to their experience of working through trauma, but this can also challenge their belief system causing new formations to occur.
5. Strength & Resilience. An increase in a personal sense of strength and resilience that is carried with the person as they face new challenges in life.
If you're in a place where you can't even imagine experiencing any of these, that's okay. It is essential to recognize and validate that when faced with traumatic experiences it is normal to undergo highly distressing emotions and symptoms. These feelings should be honored and respected first before the exploration of growth. It is also important to realize that no expected time-frame or recovery process is the same for everyone. Just because growth is possible does not mean that suffering will not occur and conversely when trauma is present it isn’t guaranteed that personal growth will automatically occur. But, it is possible with time, and support to create new meaning from our experiences.