I’m not surprised when I read about the escalating statistics of the number of people being treated for clinical depression and anxiety; in fact, what is surprising to me is that so many of us continue to get out of bed every day despite the overwhelming odds against us. The stark reality of human existence is that eventually, we all will lose everyone and everything which is dear to us—suffering is a universal truth, yet the majority of us keep bravely moving forward.
I’m left with the obvious question: If trauma is an inalienable fact of life, why did I spend 47 years ducking from it, running from it, and denying its existence? I think we can all agree that trauma can be devastating, and that some of us appear to get more than our fair share of trauma to process. Up until a year ago, I was content to blindly ignore the trauma in my life, but everything got turned upside down when I decided to disclose that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I needed to somehow process what had happened to me as a child and find a way to make some sense out of the senseless. Because I am an athlete, I was able to make the analogy that just as a muscle needs to be put under strain for it to grow, the trauma in my life may be a catalyst for spiritual and emotional growth in my life.
Pioneers in the field of Positive Psychology, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun are credited with coining the phrase “Post-traumatic Growth” as they attempted to measure positive outcomes in people who experience life-altering trauma. The researchers looked at five primary metrics: relating to others, new possibilities, personal growth, spiritual change, and appreciation of life. This dovetails nicely with Stephen Joseph’s book What Doesn’t Kill Us, which describes how people who have been touched by trauma often report heightened functioning in three facets of their life. Here are the three categories and some guiding questions—I invite you to consider a traumatic event from your life, be it an illness, loss of a loved one, physical or emotional trauma, or even a painful breakup, and consider whether this trauma has been a catalyst for personal growth.
Have you reassessed the importance of what you thought was a primary relationship in your life? Have you undertaken what I refer to as “friendship editing”—distancing yourself from people who are overwhelming negative or too demanding of your emotional energy? After coming through trauma, are you more compassionate and empathetic with others?
2. Change in Values
Have you adopted less “attitude” and more “gratitude”? Has there been a substantive shift in your prioritizing of time or money? Perhaps you’ve re-evaluated your life and you are aligning yourself with what Brene Brown refers to as vulnerability acceptance?
3. Global Change in Life Philosophy
Have you finally uncovered your core purpose in life, your mission? Have you come to accept the one thing “you can’t NOT do”?
It’s important to stress—and I know this intimately from my own experience—that simply being affected by trauma does not mean that we will be “effected” by trauma. So many of us fail to undertake the deep dive to embrace the trauma as a potential for transformation. This was the genesis of the title of my blog, Breathe Through This, because unless I am willing to sit with this discomfort long enough to make sense of it, any prospect of spiritual or personal growth is all but nonexistent. There needs to be what Calhoun and Tedeschi describe as “one’s ability to reflectively engage or ruminate over elements of the event in order to repair and restructure one’s understanding of the world.” I interpret this word “ruminating” to be more of an active process of self-discovery rather than a death spiral of depression brought on by the paralyzing “poor me” pity parade.
No matter how transformative working through trauma can be, I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, but I today I do understand why it is often referred to as an “unexpected gift”. We become empowered when we take personal ownership of the trauma in our lives—We begin to reorient ourselves as the residue of this trauma is woven into our beautifully unique resiliency blanket. In the words of Peter Levine, “Trauma is a hell on earth. Trauma resolved is a gift from the gods.”