Post Traumatic Growth

In this week's yoga class at my son's pre-school, we talked about lotus flowers growing from mud.  We then made mud with brahma dandasana, warmed the earth with sun salutations, and germinated lotus seeds with our breath. 

Many of these children have directly been impacted by the mud slides in our community of Santa Barbara. Some of the children are evacuated indefinitely from their mud filled homes, others know children who have died. 

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A trauma of this scale naturally produces physiological and psychological responses of grief, anger, horror, anxiety, sadness. The mud slides and fire have shaken and threatened our understanding of the world...and in this offer an opportunity to restructure our perception of what matters. 

As Kaufman and Gregoire write in their book Wired to Create, after a trauma “adverse events force us to reexamine our beliefs and priorities, they can help us break out of habitual ways of thinking and thereby boost creativity.”

For the past 10 decades mainstream psychology has focused on post-traumatic stress in response to trauma. But more recently there has been a shift toward non-medical positive psychological views of mental health. And researchers have found that some trauma survivors report posttraumatic growth: positive transformations that result from suffering.

Researchers at UNC Tedeschi and Calhoun coined the term post traumatic growth in 1995 and found that there are 5 domains of growth that trauma survivors might report:

  • deeper and more meaningful social connection

  • openness to possibilities that were not present before

  • new awareness of personal strengths

  • spiritual connection

  • sense of purpose and appreciation for life

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It is not without psychological stress that this transformation occurs. In fact, highly resilient people may experience less post traumatic growth than less resilient people (Levine, Laufer, Stein, Hamama-Raz, & Solomon, 2009). Having too effective coping strategies may prevent you from experiencing the magnitude of the pain necessary to make seismic shifts. 

For example, research with POWs found that 61% of aviators shot down, imprisoned and tortured reported psychological benefits from the experience such as increased self confidence and sense of what is important in life (Sledge, Boydstun, & Rabe, 1980).  What is surprising is that the more severely the veterans were tortured, the more likely they were to report post traumatic growth. No Mud, No Lotus.

Experiencing a traumatic event can also increase psychological  preparedness-a strength to withstand future shocks. For the community of Santa Barbara the fire may have prepared us to better withstand the floods. Weathering the stress of the smoke and fires encouraged us to build stronger and trusting relationships with our neighbors, our first responders,  and our community resources. We entered the flood from a state of gratitude and understanding of what matters.

Stanford Professor Kelly McGonigal's book The Upside of Stress shares the latest science demonstrating that how we think about stress significantly impacts it's influence on us. Having a view that stress is bad for your health and using avoidance strategies to manage stressors (e.g, drinking, numbing out, suppressing emotions) predicts negative health impacts. In contrast thinking about stress as an opportunity for growth and coping with stress proactively  (managing problems that can be solved, finding meaning, developing a network of social support, developing acceptance) can transform stress into a stimulus that makes us smarter, stronger, more successful, more compassionate and more courageous.

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As we slowly recover from the floods, we have an opportunity to make meaning out of this suffering. We have an opportunity to foster high quality connections, live more closely by our values, and become more flexible and growth oriented in our mindsets.