It’s easy to stay in our comfort zone. We’re good there. We know where we are. We know what we’re supposed to do about it all.
There are two problems with hanging in the comfort-zone, however. Life doesn’t often let us stay there, and we don’t grow as much there.
“Post-traumatic growth” is a term coined by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, two of the pioneering experts on the subject. They say PTG is the “positive change that occurs as a result of struggle with highly challenging life crises.”
In this YouTube video, History of Post Traumatic Growth, Calhoun tells a bit about how their concept of studying “growth through stress” developed.
The scientists and their teams interviewed people who had endured hardship. They wanted to know why some people grow after trauma and others don’t. What they found surprised them.
Calhoun put together their findings in a 2006 book, HANDBOOK OF POSTTRAUMATIC GROWTH: Research and Practice.
Just like the wise guys keep telling us, it seems suffering can help people transform in fundamental, positive ways. The transformations in the people who were interviewed were more profound (and more common) than the researchers expected.
They tell us that there are five ways people can grow after a crisis:
- Their relationships can strengthen.
- They can discover new paths and purposes in life. Sometimes these are related to a particular survival mission. Other times the crisis becomes the catalyst for a more general reconsideration of priorities.
- Trauma allows them to find their inner strength.
- Their spiritual life can deepen.
- They can feel a renewed appreciation for life.
HUH? HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN?
“Deliberate rumination,” (spending lots of time trying to make sense out of painful experiences and reflecting on how these circumstances have changed you), the psychologists say, helps to foster post-traumatic growth.
Tedeschi and Calhoun use the metaphor of an earthquake to explain how we grow in the wake of crisis. Just as a city has certain structure before major earthquake so too do we have fundamental beliefs about our lives and the world. Trauma shatters those assumptions.
Out of the rubble comes the opportunity to rebuild. In the aftermath of an earthquake, cities aim to erect buildings and infrastructure that are stronger and more resilient than what now lies in ruins.
Those who are able to rebuild psychologically, spiritually and otherwise after a crisis are better equipped to deal with future adversity, and they ultimately lead more meaningful lives.
As Anne M. Mulcahy, the former chairperson and CEO of Xerox Corp, once advised, “When you have that window of opportunity called a crisis, move as quickly as you can, get as much done as you can. There’s a momentum for change that’s very compelling.”
WHAT PTG CAN MEAN FOR YOU
Personal coach-mentor Robin Amos Kahn gave a short talk about this phenomenon which was published in this YouTube video, Post-Traumatic Growth by OwnTheRoom in 2014. In it she shares her personal story of personal adversity and how she grew from it.
Own The Room is an organization of skillful communicators based in New Jersey who provide leadership training and work with corporations around the world. They say they help “empower high performance cultures that enable people to actually have fun while doing the best work of their lives.”
OKAY….HOW DO I DO IT?
The following collection of six life-hacks are take-aways from these guys and others who have continued to figure out how to use the findings on post-traumatic growth and their ramifications to help other people survive and thrive after a crisis.
The ideas for these life-hacks were iterated by psychologist Stephen Joseph in his book, WHAT DOESN’T KILL US: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth.
I’ve thrown in asides from psychologist Fredrike Bannink whose book, POST TRAUMATIC SUCCESS: Positive Psychology and Solution-Focused Strategies to Help Clients Survive and Thrive, was written for other psychologists working with trauma survivors.
(Stephen Joseph spent over 20 years working with survivors of trauma and is a professor at the University of Nottingham. Fredrike Bannink, who among other things is the Mental Health Trainer for Doctors Without Borders, is an internationally known clinical psychologist based in Amsterdam.)
- Figure out where you are now.
- Acknowledgement and validation are important, the guys in lab coats say. You have to understand and accept the changes that have happened. You have to cop to the fact that you are smack-dab in the middle of it all
- F’r real, your problems don’t need to be analyzed to death. They are there; they are in your face. See them. Know where you’re standing. If you can just see the challenges, you can actually face them and maybe do something about them.
- Focus on what already works – assess your strengths, competencies and resources: How do you cope? How do you keep your head above water? Do more of that. What have you got? Use it.
VALUE CHANGE ITSELF
You know what the best thing about change is? It is happening all the time. If you’re stuck in suck, it helps to remember that old and hoary reminder: “This, too, shall pass.”
Obstructions and adversity do not go on forever. Mostly that’s ’cause we don’t last that long. Also, we always have the option to choose to step out of the bog our own selves.
One way to do that is to try to get past looking at just the negatives of a situation. Check out how things may have improved as well. Even a small change for the better counts. Count them all.
BUILD ON HOPE
- Learn to be hopeful about the future, these guys tell you. Look for inspirational stories about people who have overcome similar obstacles and start looking at how you, your own self, still have a future, one that can be good anyhow.
- Focus on your personal goals. Seeing yourself as you want to be is the key to personal growth. What are your best hopes?
- The scientists, seekers and practitioners all say building hope and optimism is very important for transcending whatever 2 x 4 has hit you upside the head. They are the antidotes to the hopelessness and pessimism that keep you in the muck.
- Develop an attitude of gratitude. Yup. Count your blessings. They are on the other side of all the wo-wo-woes.
Re-write your own story. You can do this literally by using expressive writing techniques to find new perspectives. As Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung once said, “I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.“
So…tell the story about who you are choosing to become. Make up your own happy endings.
After a while you’ll start to understand that it doesn’t matter who hurt you or what broke you down. What is going to matter to you is who and what made you smile again and why.
NOTICE NEW GROWTH
- Ask yourself: When have you felt better lately?
- Put on your own lab coat and use “scaling questions” to assess your progress, motivations, hopes and confidence. On a scale from 10 to 0, where would you say you are today? How come it’s not lower?
- Notice the progress you’ve made. Don’t discount them just because they’re teeny. One step is still one step.
- Call your shots – What will be the next signs of progress?
- Celebrate success.
The scientists who study post-traumatic growth all say that if you can get through the painful process of dealing with trauma and change, you will get to the point when you will make something that is your very own unique expression of self.
It is worthwhile to remember, I think, that one old meaning of the word “suffering” is “to undergo.” When you “suffer,” you are undergoing something. What you’re doing is just all about going on through it. You can choose to suffer over your suffering, or not.
Once you’ve made it to the other side, you’ll be able to make something, the guys in the lab coats say. Maybe it’ll be a marvelous thing the world has never before seen.
The poets, the artists, and the wise guys got there before the scientists again, I am thinking.
They know, those poets and artists. Through all of the ouches and angst and all the confusion and chaos, there’s a golden thread that leads you back to your Highest Self. And when you get there, oh…the thoughts you can think and the things you can do….
All this other stuff is about finding that thread.
Here’s a poem:
LOOKING FOR THE GOD THREAD
Looking for the God Thread…
Where the heck did it go?
It’s buried under all this other stuff.
Tangled up in all this blustering blow.
Looking for the God Thread…
Do you see a shiny fine gold wire
Wandering through this mass of
Fuzz-ball thoughts, messed-up desire?
Looking for the God Thread…
It’s in here, I know.
I’m picking through all these old bits,
Growling ’cause the going’s so slow.
Looking for the God Thread…
Where the heck can it be?
It’s all my fault! I got distracted, a bit refracted,
Now that God Thread’s LOST somewhere in me.
by Netta Kanoho
Header picture credit: “Windswept” by Maciej via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
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