Trauma Series: Post-traumatic growth: Learning to let go and move forward
Trauma can be a difficult subject to talk about and one of the most gut-wrenching concepts for clients to bring up in session. I wanted to start a trauma series in hopes of bringing some comfort and insight into all that trauma entails in order to empower those to overcome, grow, and jump those hurdles rather than avoid them.
Many people have heard the term PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) but how many of you have actually heard of post-traumatic growth? As a strengths-based counselor, I believe that focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses is a major component of recovery and an essential part of the process toward healing. However, this can be particularly difficult for individuals who have experienced trauma, whether it be recent or in their past, because they tend to view themselves as inherently weak due to their experiences. Shifting one’s perspective of trauma can alternate the conversation into “what happened to me” apart from “what’s wrong with me.” Individuals who have experienced trauma can not only be survivors but can also thrive despite unfortunate life experiences. This is what has come to be known as post-traumatic growth, which assists with fostering hope in the trauma recovery process. Post-traumatic growth is a result of processing trauma, which allows for an evolution of profound changes in one’s views of relationships, self-esteem, and life philosophies. It is progression that replaces suppression, avoidance, and repression with expression, acceptance, and release.
Let’s go back to the basics in order to get an understanding of what trauma really is and what it consists of. Trauma, by definition, is “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” This allows trauma to be pretty broad but also subjective as every individual’s experience is unique and what may be considered as traumatic to one may not be to another but that does that make it any less significant to the one who experienced it. Some of the major types of trauma include but are not limited to:
• Natural disasters
• Interpersonal violence
• House or other domestic fires
• Motor vehicle accidents
• Rape and sexual assault
• Stranger physical assault
• Domestic violence
• Child abuse or neglect
• Emergency worker exposure to trauma
• Emotional abuse
• Physical abuse
• Victim of criminal activities
• Traumatic loss of loved ones
The amount and degree of intensity of symptomology of PTSD an individual experiences varies according to variables that are specific to the victim (gender, age, race, previous history of trauma, etc.), characteristics of the trauma itself (presence of life threat, losses, physical injury, witnessing death, etc.) and social response, support, and resources available.
The symptomology of trauma and common reactions can be broken down into 4 categories:
1. Re-experiencing the trauma
• Distressing thoughts and feelings about the trauma
• Emotional distress or physical responses after experiencing a trauma reminder
2. Avoidance of trauma reminders
• Using drugs or alcohol to suppress uncomfortable thoughts/emotions
• Avoidance of activities related to the trauma
• Avoidance of people, places, or things related to the trauma
• Suppressing thoughts related to the trauma
• Avoidance of conversations about the trauma
3. Negative thoughts or feelings
• Excessive blame toward oneself or others related to the trauma
• Loss of interest in activities
• Feelings of isolation or disconnection from surroundings
• Difficulty experiencing positive feelings
• Loss of memory related to the trauma
• Excessive negative thoughts about oneself or the world
• Becoming irritable, quick to anger, or aggressive
• Heightened startle reaction
• Difficultly concentrating
• Frequently scanning the environment or watching for trauma reminders
• Difficulty sleeping
• Feelings of anxiety or related symptoms (racing heart, upset stomach, headaches)
• Risky or impulsive behaviors
In an effort to promote post traumatic growth, it is highly important not to minimize the impact of the trauma itself. Be aware that in the process of post traumatic growth, it doesn’t mean that there will be an absence of distress as both can occur simultaneously. It is growth that occurs within the context of pain and loss. It is more about maintaining a sense of hopefulness in this process in knowing that a person who has experienced trauma can indeed survive but also can experience positive life changes as a result. It is not the event that defines post traumatic growth but what is able to develop from within.
It is important not to diagnose yourself if you have been experiencing any of these symptoms, but rather talk to a professional. Trauma can continue to cause both emotional and physical symptoms for many years after the event has concluded. Suppression and avoidance may result in short term relief from trauma reactions/symptoms but ultimately leads to long-term growth. It’s much easier to want to avoid these symptoms because it’s much more difficult to face the fear of possibly re-living the time of your life that has caused so much distress. However, the only way to achieve post-traumatic growth is through this type of processing and working through the trauma rather than around it. Repressed trauma has its way of re-surfacing in ways that seem to be out of the blue and has long-term effects on how you go about daily life in relationships with others as well as in the relationship with yourself. It can lead to persisting anxiety and depression or loss of identity and self in the grand scheme of life.
If you have had a recent or past traumatic experience and find it getting in the way of living the life you’ve imagined for yourself, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced Orlando mental health counselors.