Saturday, January 16, 2016

Ruminations on Post-Traumatic Growth

Have you heard about post-traumatic growth, the positive changes that psychologists say can arise from dealing with extreme adversity? I bring it up not as something to crow about or strive for— it doesn’t work that way—but as something that can bring light and hope to suicide loss survivors and others facing traumatic events.

I didn’t pay much attention early on when more seasoned survivors talked about post-traumatic growth as a counterweight to post-traumatic stress. I was incredulous that anything good could come from this horror. I resisted the idea, not only because it felt so alien but because it seemed to belittle the tragedy of suicide. Harold Kushner writes in When Bad Things Happen to Good People that if he could choose to have his teenage son back from illness rather than his own spiritual growth from loss, he would, but he doesn’t get that choice. We can’t reverse the devastation that happened but inevitably, it changes us and if we’re lucky, maybe we can choose to change in ways that heal ourselves and the world. Those changes then become part of the legacy of our loved one.

Psychologists have been studying post-traumatic growth (PTG) since the 1990s. They found that it’s an ongoing transformative process that co-exists with distress about the traumatic event. The positive changes of PTG occur in five domains: people’s appreciation of life, the quality of their relationships, sense of their own strength, new life opportunities, and spirituality. As I read about these domains in the work of Tedeschi and Calhoun, they felt instantly and reassuringly familiar. You can check out one version of their PTG Inventory here .

What fascinates me is that experts say PTG arises not from enduring the trauma but from the struggle to deal with the “earthquake” that shatters our core beliefs or “assumptive world.” Oddly, the more resilient you are, as in easily bouncing back from set-backs, the less likely you are to go through the “cognitive processing” of PTG. Instead, PTG arises from “rumination,” going over and over what happened and your reaction to it as you try to make sense of it and reconstruct your schemas, or ways of seeing the world. 

Psychologists distinguish between “brooding” rumination that is involuntary, depressive, and haunted by intrusive thoughts (like many of us have in the early stages) versus more reflective, “deliberate” rumination that actively seeks meaning. Indeed, jumping into problem-solving too quickly in search of closure can impede PTG: “This often lengthy process during which distress persists may actually be important for the maximum degree of PTG to occur. This distress keeps the cognitive processing active, whereas a rapid resolution is probably an indication that the assumptive world was not severely tested and could accommodate the traumatic events” (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004, p. 8). Other factors that promote PTG include expressing one’s emotions and telling one’s story in a supportive environment, like support groups. 

What a validation this is for those of us who are inclined to think and talk about our loss rather than downplay our grief and quickly resume normal activities. PTG is part of the “new normal” we’re trying so hard to construct and understand. It’s an answer to the well-meaning folks who think there’s no point continuing to ask why or process our feelings about the suicide. Learning about PTG reminds me how fortunate I’ve been to have access not only to support groups, therapy, and companions in grief, but to this blog as a vehicle for rumination and to those who respond in such encouraging ways to my wandering thoughts. Thanks to you, my readers, for being part of my cognitive processing! 

There are no guarantees. PTG will remain elusive for some and of little interest to others. But its occurrence is significant, as suicide survivors’ stories attest. You can read about survivors who became activists, advocates, healers, artists, researchers, and more generous, compassionate people in survivors’ memoirs and the new edition of After Suicide Loss: Coping with Your Grief by Jordan and Baugher (2016). 

The possibility of PTG, even in people with multiple traumatic experiences, is “a powerful silver lining for us grievers” and a form of “mental strength training,” writes survivor blogger Lisa Richards.  Among her suggestions: “Focus on, learn about and strengthen your relationships. . . . What do you want to do more of/less of, in your relationships, now that your loss has shown you how critical it is for you to LIVE EVERY MOMENT?”

To my fellow survivors and others: What growth have you noticed in the wake of trauma? Let’s give ourselves credit for each step forward--and be self-compassionate if that’s not our process right now. 

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