October 4, 2015

Why Trauma can do More Good than Harm.

Enrique Jiménez

After Malala Yousafzai was attacked by a masked Taliban gunman who shot her in the shoulder, neck and skull, she renewed her vow to fight for education:

“The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.”

She is not only a beacon of hope for activists worldwide but also an inspiring role model for post-traumatic growth.

Post-traumatic what?

Most people have heard of post-traumatic stress. Yet beyond the medical community, few are aware of the evidence of post-traumatic growth. It may seem paradoxical to even put the words “trauma” and “growth” next to each other in one sentence. And yet survivors and experts are beginning to focus increasingly on the possibility that we could use even the most harrowing experiences for a greater good in our own life and to impact the world.

It was the unstoppable grief over the death of her mother that propelled Cheryl Strayed to embark unprepared on a brutal 1,100-mile hike that eventually led her back to herself and to write Wild.

It was the day that she got shot which inspired teenager Malala Yousafzai to renew her vow to fight for other girls.

Since the attack that almost took her life, Gabby Giffords has found a new calling—to campaign for stricter gun laws to prevent other innocent people from being shot and to come back as a “new Gabby—better, stronger, tougher.”

When I first started the research for my book Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs, I thought these stories of post-traumatic growth were incredibly rare and reserved for exceptional heroes and she-roes. Now I know that they are truly everywhere.

Though Malala, Cheryl and Gabby surely exceed in courage and compassion, they are not made of a different fabric than you and me. According to psychologist Richard Tedeschi, post-traumatic growth’s leading researcher, as many as 90 percent of survivors report at least one aspect of post-traumatic growth—such as a renewed appreciation for life and more compassion or connection to their heart’s purpose. This does not happen immediately or easily and rarely by itself. We need to actively work towards positive change and we need the right tools and support in order to transform a bad break into a breakthrough.

Any manner of trauma can lead to this effect: a physical attack, losing a loved one, divorce, or an unexpected diagnosis. “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 trauma therapist Peter Levine in An Unspoken Voice. “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.”

Contrary to popular opinion, experiencing growth after trauma is far more common than PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). It is vital to look closer. While most people will suffer from post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of trauma, most will heal with therapy and time. “But it is important to make clear that not everybody experiences growth, and we are not implying that traumatic events are a good thing,” Richard Tedeschi stresses. “They are not. In the wake of trauma, people become more aware of the futility in life and that unsettles some while it focuses others. This is the paradox of growth: people become more vulnerable, yet stronger.”

It is crucial to distinguish between the event and the outcome. There is nothing beneficial about losing your mother or being shot in Pakistan; we wouldn’t choose it, then or now. Nevertheless, we might be able to reap something beneficial out of the sorrow.

The good only comes from what we decide to do with it—from our struggle which 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.

A crisis is not a cul-de-sac but rather a watershed moment. What we do next matters—advance or retreat, take a turn south or north, run or hide, crawl or fly. We can avert our eyes or dig deeper, try harder or grow softer, close down or break open.

From Buddha to Batman to indigenous healers to the blockbuster magicians of Hollywood, the hero’s emergence through trial and resurrection is among the oldest stories in history. “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life” renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell said. “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” What’s new is that the science of post-traumatic growth is applied in hospitals, hospices and the Army.

The journey from victim to victor is never easy-breezy. Post-traumatic growth is not the opposite of post-traumatic stress but rather the struggle works as a catalyst for the emotional growth. Malala’s, Cheryl’s and Gabby’s stories let us in on how hard this path was for them. Cheryl used drugs and sex as escape routes from the grief and Malala and Gabby had to face a brutal recovery to repair the damage the bullets had done to their brains. Amazingly, they all eventually turned their lives around through hard work, compassion, the support of loved ones and a lot of soul-searching. They have inspired millions of readers to do the same.

As civil rights icon Maya Angelou told me when I got to speak to her about her childhood traumas months before her death, “Nothing will work unless you do.”

Let’s get to work.


Relephant Read:

The Silver Lining to Suffering: Post-traumatic Growth.


Author: Michaela Haas, PhD

Apprentice Editor: Carlene Kurdziel; Editor: Travis May

Photo: Enrique Jiménez/Flickr

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