Post Traumatic Growth: Is it Real and Does it Work?

Trauma is always painful and never easy. But some researchers and healers say it’s an opportunity for positive change and radical growth.

Post Traumatic Growth

Trauma isn’t something that anyone should have to deal with, but the reality is that most of us will experience it at some point in our lives. According to Richard Tedeschi, one of the founders of Post Traumatic Growth research, an estimated 75% of people 65 years and older have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime.

“We’re living in a post-traumatic world,” says Leah Hudson, an ordained interfaith minister and cofounder of the Living Resilience Project.

She and her colleague, Carol Meyer, energy medicine practitioner and also a cofounder of the Living Resilience Project, are passionate about giving survivors a template for shifting the after-effects of trauma from stress to growth. Their work builds on the concept of Post Traumatic Growth—positive change experienced as a result of struggling with a major life crisis. 

Life in a Post-Traumatic World

Growth from pain is an idea as old as the hero’s journey and continues to show up in current events. While critics say it’s nothing more than positive psychology, proponents point to evidence of benefits.

“Look at the Parkland kids,” says Meyer. “Are they better? No, but yes. They turned their pain into something with a higher purpose.”

Post Traumatic Growth goes beyond coping mechanisms that help us deal with the leftover fear loop and triggers from trauma, says Hudson. It transforms and redirects that energy away from fear and toward higher purpose, so that trauma inspires us instead of drives us.

5 Ways to Maximize Growth

If we’ve already made some progress on our healing journeys, chances are good that we know a lot about living with and moving on from trauma. But when it comes to actually doing it and making it work, how many of us actually know how? Hudson and Meyer have a lot to offer in that department.

1. Lean Into the Discomfort

Making room for growth and positive outcomes doesn’t excuse us from the pain. Post Traumatic Growth actually encourages us to lean into it without forcing ourselves to go somewhere we’re not ready to go. Think of stretching a muscle to moderate discomfort without going so deep that you risk injury.

“To be ready for Post Traumatic Growth, you have to have the time, space, and energy to look back,” says Hudson. “You may have to go through treatment for medical and psychological issues first.”

It’s never too early to examine our life patterns and older traumas until we’re ready to work with the more immediate one, says Hudson. She cautions that Post Traumatic Growth tools are in addition to, not a substitute for, medicine and other treatments.

2. Loosen Your Grip

Trauma isn’t something that should have happened, and we don’t have to choose to see it any other way. But for positive growth to occur, we have to be ready to loosen our grip on seeing trauma as something bad that has happened to us.

“If your biography is filled with pain and trauma, you’re not running your life. It’s running your life,” says Hudson. “Suspending those judgements and opening that grip enough to rewrite your biography from the perspective of strength puts you back at the center.”

Deliberate renumeration and writing are tools that Post Traumatic Growth proponents use to help survivors reframe their stories. Hudson also encourages gratitude as a tool for shifting our stories.

“When you start monitoring how much time you spend not being aware of things that are worthy of your gratitude, you start feeding the energy that you wish to grow rather than continuing to feed that wound,” says Hudson.

3. Anchor into Your Body

The tricky thing about trauma is that the brain stores the experience in a fragmented manor, which makes it difficult to make sense of and release. When the experience is too intense, it can also cause us to leave our bodies as a coping mechanism, says Meyer. Returning to the body through activities like breath and meditation can help us access and heal trauma in a way that our logical minds cannot.

“I see a lot of energy in the head, and we’re not in the other three quarters of our body,” says Meyer.

She recommends simple tools for healing and releasing: breathe into your belly, feel your feet, close your eyes, and still your hands in your lap.

“It’s not rocket science,” says Meyer. “It’s taking those few minutes to signal your brain to move to the parasympathetic nervous system.”

4. Get Curious

Another key component of breaking free from trauma is adopting an attitude of curiosity. As we lean into the discomfort, open to new possibilities, and feel the sensations in our bodies, we begin to ask questions.

Why am I feeling that way? When has this happened before? Where do I feel it in my body?

“Your body is a lightening rod of information,” says Hudson. “Start learning its language and building that dictionary.”

As you better understand what your body is trying to tell you, your awareness will be more specific and helpful. For example, you’ll know from experience that when you get that overwhelming feeling of anxiety, you need to retreat and get perspective.

5. Make New Choices

That sense of curiosity and heightened awareness is the springboard for making new choices and writing a new ending to our personal trauma narrative. We may not have control over whether trauma happens to us or not, but we do get to choose how we respond to it.

“Being in your body and receiving that information in the moment will give you different choices when you’re in that situation again,” says Hudson.

Meyer agrees. “Once you’re aware, you’re half way healed,” she says. “You didn’t know. Now you know. And now you do better.”

Next time you beat up on yourself for doing the same thing over and over again, release that judgement, says Hudson.  “Stop feeding that energy and thinking you’re going to make the same bad choice,” she says, “because you don’t have to.”

Beyond Positive Psychology

Part of the difficulty in proving the efficacy of post traumatic growth is deciding what it is and how to measure it. What does it mean to be better? Who gets to define that? And how long of a timeframe should we allow for healing?

Critics of Post Traumatic Growth say perceived growth doesn’t always mean actual growth, and some studies measuring growth look at time periods as short as one college semester.

On the flip side, we can’t expect healing to progress in a straight line, says Hudson. It’s more of a spiral. And as long as survivors think they’re doing better, says Meyer, isn’t that the goal?

Measure Your Progress

The founders of Post Traumatic Growth research use a standardized questionnaire to measure survivors’ progress in five key areas: relating to others, new possibilities, personal strength, spiritual change, and appreciation of life. If you’d like to track your healing progress with this method, you can print the Post Traumatic Growth Inventory here.

Hudson and Meyer also use the SQ21 survey—a questionnaire assessing 21 skills involved in spiritual intelligence—to give survivors a larger, more complete look at their strengths and opportunities for growth.

“Spiritual intelligence adds greater wisdom to Post Traumatic Growth,” says Hudson. “When those two things combine, they really ignite your healing and empower you to live from your best and highest self.”

Healing Expectations

So is it possible to eliminate trauma with Post Traumatic Growth? Both Hudson and Meyer say no.

“Trauma is always a part of your being,” says Meyer, “but it can also transform into a gift. You never know how long it will take for it to feel that way in your heart.”

Hudson agrees. “Your relationship to trauma and your response to it changes,” she says. “Instead of it being something that depletes you, it can actually turn into something that enriches the essence of what your life purpose is.”

While trauma never goes away, the general stress in your life can shift for the better over time, says Hudson. “You can choose whether trauma is going to limit you or inspire you.”

Once the worst has happened, we all have the choice to go deeper into who we are and discover new levels of strength. After that, says Hudson, no matter what happens, we have peace of mind knowing that we can manage whatever comes our way from the best of who we are.

Learn more about the Living Resilience Project here and check out their upcoming retreat, A Path to Resilience for Cancer Survivors, September 7 – 9, 2018 at the Marywood Retreat Center in St Johns, Florida.

Leah HudsonLeah Hudson is an Ordained InterFaith Minister and InterSpiritual Counselor, Certified SQ21 Coach in Spiritual Intelligence, Brennan Healing Science Practitioner, Transformational Breath Worker, and Advanced Labyrinth Facilitator. In addition to being a founding member of the Living Resilience Project, she provides spiritual counseling through her private practice, Goodness Grows, LLC, and is a founder and spiritual director of Omnisara Labyrinth & Gardens. Hudson has more than 30 years of business experience as a parter in an export firm that provided refined vegetable oil in the US Food for Peace Program. Her community service over the years revolved around education in St. Johns and Duval Counties in Northeast Florida, and she is a founder of Discovery Montessori School in Jacksonville Beach.

Carol MeyerCarol Meyer is a holistic practitioner and owner of Healer One, an energy medicine practice specializing in life transitions, depression, trauma, and addiction, for the past 12 years. She incorporates breath work and sound vibration into her kinesthetic energy balancing practice. Meyer has a BA from the University of South Florida, is a Professional Studies Graduate from the Barbara Brennan School of Healing, and is a minister of the Universal Life Church. She is a member of the Associated Bodyworkers and Massage Professionals. Meyer is a military dependent and a breast cancer survivor. Her passions are vibrational healing and local community involvement, including healing arts, yoga, RN health care providers, LGBT, seniors, and Jacksonville Civic Orchestra.

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