Coping with traumatic stress and healing from trauma in the modern age can feel challenging and be anxiety provoking. This is both because of the capacity of weapons to inflict maximum harm, and the ease of digital access to news about such events. As a result, there is often a vicious feedback loop regarding danger and threat-exposure, which interrupts the process of dealing with trauma.
Oftentimes, media attention is drawn to negative aspects of dealing with trauma, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is true that being a survivor of a traumatic event – or even potentially vicariously witnessing it through media coverage – can be associated with unpleasant symptoms such as flashbacks, numbness, and emotional flooding.
Yet experiencing a trauma – however scary and disorienting – can also serve as an opportunity to grow in unexpected and positive ways. There are different terms for this phenomenon, such as ‘resilience‘ and ‘post-traumatic growth‘, but essentially it involves existential and structural change. This type of change involves the process of working through challenging questions about your life and its meaning in the wake of a trauma. Examples of these types of questions include:
‘Who am I?’
‘Who have I become?’
‘What happened to me?’
‘Why did I live (while others died)’?
‘How was I influenced by this experience(s)? How am I distinct from it?’
‘How has my sense of being in the world and relating with others changed? How has it remained constant?’
‘How can I live my life with a newfound sense of meaning?’
I use the terms “existential” and “structural” change because although all people are faced with answering basic questions of existence, trauma survivors must do so with the recognition that in critical ways they may no longer be the same person they were before the event(s).
Post-traumatic growth (PTG) covers five domains. They include: appreciation of life; relationships with others; new life possibilities; personal strength; and spiritual changes. One doesn’t need to change in all of these domains to experience PTG. These categories simply describe the varied ways in which one can experience PTG. Appreciation of life involves a new, existential awareness of and appreciation for living. Relationships with others involves discovering new capacities for deeper connections with others, perhaps such as those who share an experience with suffering. New life possibilities involves recognizing new opportunities in life that may not have existed or been visible prior to the struggle with the trauma. Personal strength involves discovering new strengths or mastery in ways that are deeply affirming. Lastly, spiritual change involves developing or modifying one’s spiritual framework, beliefs, or understanding in ways that may provide comfort and/or perspective.
Although dealing with trauma often involves loss of some aspect of self-identity, going through a period of struggling can also allow a person to discover strengths he or she didn’t realize they had. As a result, a person is able to move from a framework of ‘dealing with trauma’ to ‘healing from trauma’. The trauma never goes away, but our understanding of ourselves is profoundly changed in positive ways as a result of having gone through it.
No one wants to be forced to confront these existential questions. Indeed, it is scary to feel a loss of control and agency. On the other hand, trauma affords us an opportunity to reconsider our place in the world. Therapy can be a safe, stable, and consistent environment to address these concerns.
Eric Spiegel, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and practice director of Attune Philadelphia Therapy Group. He is the President of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) for 2018-2019, and has won numerous awards from ASCH, including their Early Career Achievement Award (2012). Dr. Spiegel is the co-author of the book Attachment in Group Psychotherapy, published by the American Psychological Association. He has also published journal articles and book chapters on subjects such as attachment, hypnosis, group therapy, anxiety, trauma, and relationships.