Post Traumatic Growth: Thriving and Finding Meaning After Trauma

post traumatic growth

We have all heard the phrase,  “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” 

As survivors of domestic violence, this saying can be hard to grasp. It can leave you wounded, with both visible and invisible scars. It can sometimes be hard to imagine you will ever recover from the trauma you faced, let alone come back stronger. 

However, as much as it doesn’t feel like growth is occurring, data states otherwise. Studies show that about 71% of interpersonal violence survivors experience some type of Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) [1]. Thousands of survivors have learned not just to survive but to thrive. They have used the pain inflicted by their trauma as an avenue to find new meaning in their life. 

From Trauma to Opportunity

In short, PTG is a positive transformation that occurs in the life of many survivors of intense trauma. 

People who experience PTG do not merely bypass the negative consequences of trauma. Instead, the emotional battle is what challenges survivors to reevaluate their perception of life. This new perception works as a catalyst for positive growth [1]

In other words, the aftermath of trauma can change your mindset (in a good way). It can alter the lens through which you view the world. It is like a photographer who adjusts their lens and angle to see the most powerful possible shot. People experiencing PTG choose to react to their trauma in a way that allows them to see the best in their situation. 

According to the Post Traumatic Growth Inventory, people typically experience PTG in one or more of the following ways. 

  • A new, enhanced appreciation for life.
  • Improved social relationships and an increase in positive emotions derived from the relationships.
  • An openness to new possibilities/opportunities in life.
  • An increase in mental resilience and personal strength.
  • Spiritual connection.

The Journey of Post Traumatic Growth

There is no timeline for coping, healing, or growth. Every survivor’s experience is different, and that’s okay. PTG usually occurs naturally, and unfortunately, not everyone experiences it. 

However, there are five evidence-based ways to help facilitate growth:

Education

Growth after trauma requires some serious self-reflection. You may not be the same person you were before the trauma, and you have to face the reality of determining your new identity. Also, many of your perceptions about life have likely changed. 

The first thing to facilitate growth is to acknowledge these changes and understand that your situation will require you to view your circumstances in a new, positive way. You need to try to change your mindset while at the same time, allow compassion for yourself and your trauma. 

Disclosure

Talking about trauma can feel like a release. It can also help you make sense and find meaning in the trauma. There are many different ways you can talk through and process your trauma. You can try counseling, venting with family/friends, joining a support group, sharing your story on a blog/domestic abuse network, or starting a journal. You could even record yourself or talk to yourself in an empty room.

Service

Helping others has profound benefits for your mental health and healing. To add, it can give you a sense of self-worth, accomplishment, and gratitude. It can also aid in finding meaning in your trauma. 

Consider doing service directly with causes associated with the trauma you went through—such as being a domestic violence advocate or starting a blog about your grief and growth.

Emotional Regulation

Regulating the intense emotions you feel after a traumatic event can be difficult; but, trying to experience PTG when surrounded by negative emotions is impossible. You should refrain from dwelling on your negative emotions– try your best to frame things positively. Instead of focusing on your situation’s negatives, consider what you have gained through your experience– perspective, a fresh start, an opportunity to learn and grow.

Another practice that can assist with emotional regulation is breathing, mediation, and acknowledging/observing emotions while you are experiencing them. 

Narrative Development

You are solely in charge of deciding what your story will be and what your trauma means. It is an individual choice to focus on the negatives and talk about everything you lost from the abuse or grief. You can also acknowledge those losses while choosing to focus on the positive things you learned from the trauma and the growth you experienced. 

Lessons from a Broken Cup

@9231458 via Twenty20

The Japanese have a tradition called kintsugi, which means “golden repair.” It is the ancient art of putting broken pottery dishes back together using gold [4] causing the pottery to be more beautiful and worthy than before it suffered the break. 

Likewise, you can use the trauma you endured as a way to recreate yourself in a beautiful, strong way. You can experience post-traumatic growth.

Viewing the World Through a New Lens

“Thoughts could leave deeper scars than almost anything else.” 

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix

It’s essential to recognize that you are not defined or controlled by your traumas. 

Unfortunately, no one can take away the trauma or pain you endured, but you can choose how to react to what the world has handed you. It is up to you to change your mindset and decide to frame your life experiences positively. 

Remember, broken things can transform into something even more beautiful. And you–survivors and angel families— can thrive after trauma. 


A Note From The Author:

Let this serve as an inspiration. None of this is to say that the abuse you experienced or the loved one you lost to an abusive relationship ended up being a blessing in disguise. Anyone who experiences post-traumatic growth realizes the cost. Most likely, most would happily give up all the growth if they could change the truth of their trauma. 

Not everyone experiences growth after trauma, and that’s okay. It does not mean you are not a survivor, and it does not mean you will not thrive.

The growth you experience does not make your suffering any less valid.

References

  1. Elderton, A., Berry, A., & Chan, C. (2017). A Systematic Review of Posttraumatic Growth in Survivors of Interpersonal Violence in Adulthood. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 18(2), 223-236. doi:10.2307/26638176
  2. Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of traumatic stress, 9(3), 455–471. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02103658
  3. Tedeschi, R. G. (2020). Growth after trauma. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/07/growth-after-trauma#:~:text=Although%20posttraumatic%20growth%20often%20happens,%2C%20narrative%20development%2C%20and%20service.
  4. Mantovani, A. (2019). Kintsugi and the art of repair: life is what makes us. Medium. https://medium.com/@andreamantovani/kintsugi-and-the-art-of-repair-life-is-what-makes-us-b4af13a39921
  5. Rowling, J. K. (2014). Harry Potter and the order of the phoenix. Bloomsbury Childrens Books.

Processing Grief

processing grief

Loss of any kind is a part of this world. It’s something we, unfortunately, have to learn to cope with. How we process this loss is also a part of this world. What are the ways we can process grief in a healthy way? What can we do to cope with loss in our lives? What if you lost someone dear to you because of domestic violence? How do you process that loss?

Kirsten Belaire, Director of Behavioral Health at Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center stated, “Everyone is unique and so is their grief.” There are natural responses to trauma, grief, and loss, the recovery process, and functions of the brain.

Types of Loss

There are so many different types of loss – from losing a loved one to an illness to mourning the loss of a relationship, and even to a sudden loss of a loved one (including a domestic violence situation). This is not to say that any one loss is more significant than another. It also doesn’t make it easier. We all deal with loss differently and we will each process the grief differently.

Belaire‘s goal is to lead workshop attendees to an understanding that processing grief in a healthy way is to allow “the process, not dampening or shutting off the process (like coping with substances or ignoring feelings), and sharing your story/process.”

How Do You Process Loss?

I lost one of my best friends suddenly in April 2020. It was such a shock to the system that it literally brought me to my knees. How do you process such a sudden loss? I couldn’t make sense of it. I felt lost.

According to Merriam-Webster, grief is defined as “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement.” Often, those in bereavement find great difficulty in processing such an extreme and intense emotion.

In her book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler Ross outlined the five stages of grief:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

There is no right way to grieve, and the stages don’t “go in order” either. These stages are not linear – you will bounce between stages and maybe back to a stage you were in already. Since my friend’s death in April 2020, I have been bouncing between the anger, depression, and acceptance stages. I find myself wanting to be angry at how and why she died. Then depression sets in that my friend of 19 years is gone. Acceptance finds its way into my heart. But again, so does anger.

What does grieving look like? Well, it varies from person to person. What works for one, may not work for another. It typically manifests itself physically, emotionally, and psychologically, according to Mental Health America. “For instance, crying is a physical expression, while depression is a psychological expression,” stated the site.

Processing Grief in a Healthy Way 

NPR lists several fantastic ways to process grief in a healthy way. My two favorites are “be with your grief” and “grief needs expression.” Being with your grief does not mean to let it consume and overwhelm you. It simply means to acknowledge it and allowing the messiness in. Denying it doesn’t help either. Often, people will push the grief away and keep busy with work, school, or other things. That does us no good and in the end, those emotions can come back tenfold. Sit with your grief and recognize the messy emotions that come with it.

The other thing NPR lists that I have used to help me process and cope in a healthy way is expressing my grief. We are expressive creatures and in that, we need to find ways to express all of our emotions, including grief. If you are an artsy person, maybe you typically turn to painting, drawing, or sculpting. You may also find that keeping a journal will help you release your grief. Sometimes, shared grief can be a big help too. Perhaps find another trusted friend or support group that you can lean on. Those who know what you are going through can be an incredibly positive experience and help bring you peace.

Don’t Do It Alone

If you are struggling to process the grief you are experiencing, Belaire’s advice is simple but important. “Don’t feel you have to do it alone. Talk with someone who is familiar with grief (like a counselor, group member, or peer). In other words, someone who will not shut you down or make you feel like you’re failing. Remember, the grief process/healing is often painful and not always the ‘prettiest.’ It’s okay to be messy in moderation. If life becomes unmanageable, or your/others safety is at risk, seek help.”

For more information on Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center, please visit their website.

Turning Trauma Responses Into Strength

trauma response

You’re driving down the highway on your way home from work when suddenly, out of nowhere, you hear a loud screeching and see a car barreling towards you from two lanes over. Thoughts begin racing through your head but you feel frozen, unsure what to do. Right before they slam into the side of your car, you check your rearview mirror and, seeing no one behind you, you slam on your brakes with just enough time for the car to get in front of you. The threat has passed but you feel yourself breathing rapidly, your heart is about to pound out of your chest and your hands are trembling. You pull off at the next exit to give yourself time to calm down so you can safely finish your drive home. You experienced a trauma response.

Fight or Flight

Fight or flight is a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of mental fear, physical fear, and uncertainty on how to best respond. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands which release a large amount of adrenaline – resulting in increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate – often accompanied by foggy thoughts and trembling. Following the elimination of threat, the fight or flight reaction takes anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to normal levels.

Trauma Response in Domestic Violence

In abusive relationships, it’s very common for victims of abuse to live in a state of fight or flight. While it may not be fully elevated at all times, individuals in this position have been conditioned to remain fearful and unsure of what is going to come next. Due to living in a state of threat, it’s often not possible for victims of abuse to work through their emotions, feelings, and events until they have left the abusive situation/ relationship. This can make leaving even more difficult. 

After leaving an abusive relationship, the emotional and mental effects are extremely likely to linger. Again, due to being in a state of fight or flight, someone is not able to process emotions until the direct threat is eliminated. According to Love is Respect, after leaving an abusive relationship, victims are likely to experience any of the following:

  • Depression,
  • Guilt,
  • Anger,
  • PTSD,
  • Anxiety,
  • Trouble sleeping,
  • Being easily frightened,
  • Avoidance of triggers.

Turn Trauma Response Into Strength

While there isn’t a definitive healing process that works for everyone, it can be reassuring to know that many people have similar emotional experiences after leaving abusive relationships. Due to the conflicting feelings that are likely to follow leaving, it’s extremely important to seek out support in the form of therapy, support groups, and self-help activities. The first few months will not be easy but in the long run, you are saving yourself. It’s important to turn these responses to trauma into strengths. 

You’ve Been Through A Lot

For starters, your body is having such an extreme response because of all that you’ve been through. That alone should be enough to show you your worth and allow you to realize how strong you are to leave a situation that could cause such a strong physiological and subconscious response. Your body is proving to you that anyone who told you’re crazy, or that it’s “not that bad” was wrong. The body doesn’t have strong responses unless provoked.

It’s Okay to Grieve

Secondly, use these struggles as a time to heal and refind yourself. It’s okay to grieve. It’s natural to feel conflicted and to question if you’re making the right decision, but it’s important to remember that you’ve been conditioned to second guess yourself. When you’re questioning your decisions, stand firm in them, each time you stop those doubting thoughts in your head you will recondition your brain to trust your intuition.

Reconnect with Your Previous Life

Lastly, turn these responses into strengths by reconnecting with your life before your relationship. Did you enjoy coloring? Spending time with friends? Going out to eat? You might feel emotionally closed off, depressed, anxious, or apprehensive, that is okay. Turn that into a strength. Prove to yourself that you can return to normalcy. You can do this by setting a goal with yourself. Start out small, but don’t be afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It can help to ask yourself “what’s the worst that could happen?” and only use logical responses in determining the risk. Don’t let your fear outweigh the positives. You’re going to want to talk yourself out of it, but trust in yourself and recreate the amazing life you deserve. 

How to Cope with Survivor’s Guilt

survivor's guilt

You are free and clear. You are not with the abuser anymore. You can live your life free of abuse, pain, shame, and a host of other things. Yet, you feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. Why?

Some domestic violence survivors may face what is called survivor’s guilt. They may be asking themselves, “Why did I survive when so many others were killed by their abuser?” What are some ways these survivors can cope with the guilt? What can survivors do to move forward past the guilt to a place where they can help fellow survivors?

What is survivor’s guilt? 

According to Medical News Today, survivor’s guilt is “when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening situation when others did not. It is a common reaction to traumatic events and a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

Survivors of domestic violence are among those who have survived a traumatic situation and are left wondering why they survived when so many have not. They also begin to wonder if there was something they could have done differently to prevent the situation.

Survivor’s guilt is characterized by feelings of guilt, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, difficulty sleeping, and more, according to Very Well Mind.

Ways to cope 

Survivor’s guilt can follow a domestic violence survivor for months or years following their situation. But this doesn’t mean it needs to cripple them in their healing journey. There are ways to cope with their feelings.

  • Write it down – Holding everything inside is like letting something fester for an extended period of time. If you don’t do something to let off the pressure, you’ll bubble over. Write it down in a journal if you must. Let it out.
  • It’s okay to feel – Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that it’s okay to let these feelings in and acknowledge them. We survived, while someone else may not have. Why did we get out of our situations when someone else didn’t? It’s totally understandable to feel what you’re feeling.
  • Time to grieve – Grieving for any loss is vital to healing. It’s okay to give yourself room to mourn the loss of others who did not make it out of their situations.
  • Turn it around – Channel your grief into something positive so that you can make a difference in the fight against domestic violence. Volunteer at your local shelter, organize a rally in your area, or raise money and donate it to an organization like Break The Silence Against Domestic Violence.
  • Connect – It’s important to connect with other survivors so that you know you aren’t alone. Volunteering is a great way to connect and help others at the same time.
  • Self-care – Perhaps one of the most important things is to find a path of healing that works for you. Incorporate self-care activities into your daily routine.

What can survivors do to move forward? 

It is completely normal to feel guilt following a traumatic event. Holding onto those feelings, though, will only consume you and hold you back. While it’s okay to acknowledge it, try not to let it take over your life. There are ways to move forward in your healing journey while still acknowledging your feelings.

To get to a place where you can help fellow survivors will take a lot of time and patience. It won’t happen overnight. Often, I find myself wanting to finally be completely free of the pain and guilt, but I know it will take patience with myself so that I can process the feelings naturally. But I have been helping other survivors for several years now. How can you get to that place too?

Ways That Might Help

  • Acknowledge – The first part of moving forward is acknowledging what you feel. Allow the feelings to come to you. The key is to not dwell on them. Process the feeling. It’s totally normal to have this response to the trauma you endured.
  • Connect – Connecting with others who have been through what you have will not only help you cope, but it will also help you move forward. You will come to learn that you aren’t alone and that others have been through similar situations and feelings.
  • A force for good – Survivors may also find it helpful to give back to their community in some way. Volunteering your time at a local domestic violence shelter, donating gently used clothing or toys to a shelter, and educating the community about domestic violence are just some of the ways you can be a force for good.

Perhaps one of the things that helped me most in my healing journey and helped me cope was coming to understand that I couldn’t fix him. Survivors cannot fix the abusers. We can’t love them more. We can’t act a certain way. We can’t save them. And once I accepted this, I began to move forward on a healing path of hope, strength, and peace.