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When Trauma Makes You Stronger

Post-Traumatic Growth, PTG, is all about going through something harrowing, but instead of it flattening you, it can make you bounce back stronger, have greater meaning, and make you feel more alive. Sound good? 


Can Trauma make you stronger?  The answer is yes. Even after severe stress and crippling trauma (Big T, Little t)  even after grief and loss, there's a growing number of people who don’t just return to their base level before the traumatic incident, they actually do even better, and there are a few reasons for this, which we’ll talk about now.



Have you ever faced a traumatic incident? (Most humans whether they realize it or not, have).  But there is reason for hope, and even just knowing this, research states, helps people get back to themselves, and get even stronger in many ways.  



When psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, were working with parents who had lost their children—a loss that could rip anyone or any relation­ ship to shreds -  they discovered not only how much the parents helped each other, but an attitude and an action that changed everything. 



In the middle of their own grief, in­stead of wallowing in despair, the bereaved parents were moved to do something to help other families from having to face the same tragedy.  They wanted to work to prevent the circumstances that had led to their own child’s death. They had a focus, a cause, a rea­son for connecting with others that was bigger than their own suffering. 



Think of MADD: mothers against Drunk Driving, or the Sandy Hook Project, how parents went on a mission so other families wouldn’t have to go through what they did, or individuals like Kris Karr made a film about her inoperable stage IV cancer; found ways to con­quer the disease; wrote a New York Times bestselling book, Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips, describing her wellness solutions; and used her experience to start a movement. 



All these people, and so many more, didn’t just ex­perience resilience through bouncing back to their former base­ line level. With Post­ Traumatic Growth, these people changed as a result of their unthinkable ordeal, but it is a change for the better.  





  • Discovering new knowledge: New opportunities and possibilities have emerged that were not there before. In­ advertently, people become an expert in an area that had caused them great pain, and they want to learn every­thing they can. 


  •  Closer relationships with others and an increased sense of connection to others who suffer emerge. After a mass trauma—think of 9/11, or mass shootings— some sociologists describe it as “democracy of distress.” From all walks of life, people are compelled to help.  


  • Greater appreciation for life. My dear friend lost her brother to cancer very young—now she has a greater ap­preciation for being alive and for the little things she might have previously overlooked.  


  • Deepening spiritual lives. Kris Carr repositioned inoperable stage IV cancer as “Crazy Sexy Cancer” and is not only thriving but running a successful online well­ ness platform. Kris describes cancer as her teacher, her guru. She says that when she changed her focus, des­peration led to inspiration and she learned how to really live.  


  • Feeling stronger. There is a renewed sense that if I can get through that, I can face anything.

Post-traumatic growth works this way: first, people are consumed by the pain. “Why did this have to happen? It’s too much.” There’s an urge to wallow, obsess, avoid, or numb the pain. It’s easy to get stuck there, especially without someone to talk to, and many do.  But there is another way.



Here’s a fascinating study – the participants had all gone through something traumatic.  The study challenged them to take an active role in their healing. Instead of the medical pro­fessionals telling them what to do or how to think about what they had been through, they were tasked with coming up with ideas to not only get them through, but to help them move on. They were challenged to take charge. 



David Feldman, Ph.D., psychologist and coauthor of Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, explains, “Trauma survivors who experience PTG [post­traumatic growth] acknowledge their own sadness, suffering, anger and grief, and are realistic about what happened to them. But in the midst of their pain, they’re able to ask: ‘Given where I am in my life, how can I build the best future possible?’” Some even ask: How can I prevent this from happening to others? . . . which leads to a greater sense of meaning and purpose.  





More than just accepting what happened to them, “They feel it made them better human beings than they would ever have been without it. And it made them wiser and willing to take the risk of being more fully alive.” 



Happiness is not the absence of obstacles; it is an inner reser­voir that helps us handle whatever comes our way. After the healing there is that greater capacity, that greater reservoir for compassion and action, and for making a difference.



When we rec­ognize that our true nature wants to move forward, we are reminded that though life happens, it’s up to each one of us, and we each have the power to choose how we in­terpret and deal with whatever comes our way. 



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