A Re-cap of Post-Traumatic Growth
In last week’s post, we talked about Post-traumatic Growth (PTG), the mental and emotional growth that results from a survivor’s struggle to cope with trauma.1
Post-traumatic Growth is distinct from resilience because it is specifically born out of suffering. It is not the trauma itself that cause the growth, but the way the sufferer mentally processes the trauma.
This includes the meaning the sufferer gives to the suffering.
How to Find Meaning in Suffering
In this week’s post, we will cover more pathways to post-traumatic growth described in a recent article in the Scientific America.
3. Find New Opportunities
Suffering often involves loss of some sort – losing a loved one through death or divorce, losing one’s home or possessions, losing one’s health or safety.
Loss creates empty space in life that wasn’t there before. It is the emptiness that hurts.
But in the empty space of suffering, we can re-arrange what remains in our life: our time, our relationships, our values and priorities.
Relationships that have been pushed into the corners of our life may again take center stage.
Many of the things we used to think were important – getting ahead at work, finishing the next project, collecting more stuff – may get swept aside altogether.
Empty space also makes room for new opportunities.
The crumbling of my parents’ marriage created empty space in our family life. But in the emptiness, my mother pursued a career and became more deeply involved in her church. Both of my parents were able to explore new friendships and romantic relationships; both eventually re-married.
And so the loss eventually brought new gains: new step-parents and step-siblings, new friends, new work, and new challenges. The space of suffering catalyzed new growth in the family unit as well as each family member.
Most life crises by their very nature change the trajectory of life. But along that new path will come new opportunities that we would not, indeed could not, have had otherwise.
Eric Greitens, author of Resilience: Hard-won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, makes the same point:
When pain hits you, it hits a moving target. And since you’re already moving, what will change is not so much your state as your trajectory. Don’t expect a time in your life when you’ll be free from change, free from struggle…Your objective is to use what hits you to change your trajectory in a positive direction.”2
How to find new opportunities in suffering:
Try writing out answers to the following questions:3
- What in life is still important to me?
- What has this experience taught me about my personal values?
- What new opportunities, new challenges, new relationships, or new ways of seeing things might I experience as a result?
- What good may come out of this?
- What is life still expecting of me?
In 1922, Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a cycle of 55 sonnets about the death of his daughter’s friend, Wera Knoop. The entire cycle was completed in just three weeks, which Rilke himself referred to as “a savage creative storm.”4
Rilke titled one of the sonnets, “LET THIS DARKNESS BE A BELLTOWER:”5
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
4. Find Future Hope
Time is an important agent of post-traumatic growth. Given enough time, we can patiently pull out the shrapnel of suffering and put together a new life of purpose and meaning.
One psychotherapeutic method used to gain perspective after loss is called “traveling to the future.”6 In this technique, we get into an imaginary time machine and visit our future self.
The future time point can be as short as one year, since research suggests that most of us can start recovering within that time frame.7 But the time point can and probably should vary from individual to individual, depending on their personal vulnerabilities and the nature of their trauma.
How to travel to the future:
Psychiatrist Robert Leahy, Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, suggests using your imagination to answer the following questions about your life in one year’s time:
- What new experiences could you have?
- What new relationships could develop?
- Are there things that could happen that would make things better?
- Can you imagine being happy?
- Form a visual image of feeling better a year from now. Describe a story about your life in that future time.8
My parents separated when I was eleven. I wish that my eleven year old self could have climbed aboard a time capsule to travel forward a good fifteen or twenty years after their divorce, after I had successfully finished college and graduate school, after I had married and started my own family.
I wish that traumatized girl could have envisioned the strong and kind husband in her future, her two beautiful daughters, her many wise friends, colleagues, and mentors.
I wish she could have seen the years of happy, productive work ahead and the fascinating journey she would take into the inner workings the mind. I wish she could have seen the secrets that this journey would ultimately unlock within herself.
This would not have erased her past trauma. No, unfortunately this does not happen for any of us.
Yesterday is part of the same road we are traveling today and will continue to travel tomorrow.
But traveling to the future would have given that scared little girl some hope.
In a dark part of her path, she would have glimpsed the many beacons of light ahead.
5. Build a Foundation for Faith
Up until now I have only tried to address ways to create meaning out of suffering. This is a very different task than trying to find the meaning behind suffering.
But I think that the latter deserves some attention, because in the midst of a traumatic life experience, we seem to want this answer as well. In addition to asking, “What will this mean as I live the rest of my life?” we also often ask, “Why did this happen?”
So there is often a double pain in the suffering that seeks us: first comes the anguish of the loss itself; second comes a sharper, deeper pain from an anguished search to understand why.
Philosophers and theologians have debated the why of suffering for millennia. I’m not sure I have much to add to the debate, except to say that one’s conclusions seem to depend on one’s worldview.
Those who believe there are no forces in the universe beside those we can observe scientifically must rely on scientific explanations: the loss of a loved one, while tragic, is due to natural forces like disease and the inexorable cycle of life with death; the loss of safety is due to natural forces like the colliding of two massive tectonic plates.
Believers in a fair, loving God can have special trouble with the problem of suffering – it is hard to reconcile suffering with this kind of God.
One of the most ancient stories to deal with the spiritual side of suffering is found in the Book of Job.
Rabbi Harold Kushner used this story to describe suffering from a believer’s perspective in his 1981 book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
This topic is so big that I feel like it deserves its own post. So we will move on to Kushner’s conclusions next week.
But I will Kushner’s words be the last here:
The conventional explanation, that God sends us the burden because He knows that we are strong enough to handle it, has it all wrong. Fate, not God, sends us the problem. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. We begin to wonder how we will ever make it through all the years. But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on.”9
Anyone interested in learning more about resilience will benefit from reading The Resilience Workbook by Dr. Glenn Schiraldi.
And if you found this post helpful, please share it. Thank you!
1 Tedeschi, R. G., Shakespeare-Finch, J., Taku, K., & Calhoun, L. G. (2018). Posttraumatic Growth: Theory, Research, and Applications. Routledge.
2 Greitens, E. (2016). Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life. New York: Mariner Books. p.23.
3 Leahy, R. L. (2017). Cognitive therapy techniques: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Publications. 344-346.
4 Polikoff, D. J. (2011). In the Image of Orpheus Rilke: a Soul History. Wilmette, Illinois: Chiron Publications. pp.585-588.
5 Rilke, R.M. From Sonnets to Orpheus II, Translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows.
6 Leahy, R. L. (2017). Cognitive therapy techniques: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Publications. 346-348.
7 Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events?. American psychologist, 59(1), 20.
8 Leahy, R. L. (2017). Cognitive therapy techniques: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Publications. p.360.
9 Kushner, H. (1983). When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Avon Books. p.129.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.