What is the biggest trauma you’ve faced in your life? An accident? Job loss? Divorce? These are all very traumatic and some may even be more so than others, such as fighting in a war, a serious illness, a death, a kidnapping, a sexual assault or becoming a refugee. For many alive during the 80’s, one of the biggest shared traumas was the shuttle Challenger disaster.
Around 25% of people who experience a life threatening or physically violent event develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The person’s fight or flight reaction to danger becomes damaged. The symptoms include sleep disorders, flashbacks, irritability and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. These events can be even worse when involved in a shared traumatic event
Understanding what gives people the extraordinary capacity to rebound and become stronger after shared traumatic events could lead us to help more people to recover and grow after trauma. It could also lead to a better understanding of the causes of disorders such as PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, and lead to more effective treatments.
Michael Bond writing for the BBC asks “Such extreme differences in the way people cope are striking, and puzzling. What makes some people more resilient, so they require less help and can pull through quicker than others? And why do a minority even manage what psychologists call ‘post-traumatic growth’, or become stronger after trauma?”
So what are the common factors that people with post traumatic growth have in common? The sufferer must tell their story, feel they are understood and believe and find the ability to reconnect with society again.
Telling the story through social engagement is an important first step to leaving traumatic events behind. It could be a loved one, a friend or a professional therapist. If there are feelings of guilt or self blame these need to be worked through. This is also an important first step taken in reconnecting with society.
Post-Traumatic Growth is measured on an assessment scale called the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI) created by Drs Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. The PTGI is based on three key themes that look for a change in self perception, in relationships with others and in life philosophy.
Survivors experience increased self confidence and self reliance. Their perception of themselves changes. They rekindle lost relationships and readily accept social support. The change in philosophy means they have an improved perception of life, they reappraise their priorities and their belief in spirituality or religious matters may increase.
Survivors who experience post-traumatic growth seem to have a better ability to re-frame their lives after extreme trauma.
At 13, Michele Rosenthal survived a rare allergic reaction to a medication. Almost overnight she turned into the equivalent of a full-body burn victim. Over the next few weeks in a quarantined burn unit hospital room, she lost the first two layers of her epidermis.
Rosenthal says “For the next 25-plus years I struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. When I finally healed from PTSD (I’ve been 100 percent symptom-free for almost a decade), I had a large desire to give back and help others on a similar quest for recovery.” She founded healmyptsd.com, a PTSD support website, launched a radio show, trained as a healing professional and has written three books about recovering from PTSD.
Rosenthal emphasises a characteristic that enables people to survive extreme situations. It is their ability to self identify. Rosenthal says “The people who thrive are the ones who try to create a post-trauma identity, a way of seeing and presenting themselves that incorporates the trauma into the larger context of who they are. People who do this can carve out a new place for themselves in the world that allows them to expand and explore who they are and can be, rather than becoming stuck in the unbalanced limitations of pain, grief, sorrow, and torment.”
This can be a long process but by becoming stronger after traumatic events, Rosenthal is a true inspiration to us all.