When Trauma Leads to Growth

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Many single parents are recovering from trauma. But trauma can also lead to growth. Psychotherapist Kelly Hearn is here to tell us more.

hand coming out the sea to represent trauma

Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash


How To Grow After Trauma

As a psychotherapist, I work with trauma on a regular basis, which isn’t surprising given the prevalence of it.  Most people will experience an adverse event significant enough to be categorised as trauma in their lifetime.  An emotional earthquake that causes us to question our entire framework for understanding our lives: our assumptions about the benevolence of the world, our sense of meaning and purpose, even our intrinsic self-worth can be shattered in the wake of a traumatic experience.  

In my work, I hold the intention of supporting a process that not only helps people sift through the wreckage, but ultimately results in the reconstruction of an even more expansive life. While none of us would actively court disaster as a means for development, the reality is it can often result in psychological and spiritual growth.

Carl Jung talked about the ‘alchemy of transformation’ using the process of ancient alchemists – the transmutation of lead into gold - as a metaphor. Jung engaged in research to find common traits of change and growth over time, and in different cultures. He concluded there is a longstanding tradition of using intense crisis as a catalyst for positive development. Importantly, facing and processing the myriad distressing emotions emerging in the crisis is part of the alchemy; the pain a necessary agent for transformation. The ability to withstand, survive and emerge from the distress is what leads to the growth in a process that needs time to unfold at its own pace. Then, in the words of poet William Stafford, ‘Sometimes from sorrow, for no reason you sing.’

Kelly Hearn

Kelly Hearn

Post-traumatic Growth

The term post-traumatic growth was first coined by American psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the 1990s.  Tedeschi and Calhoun identified five ‘domains of growth’ or positive change:

  1. A greater sense of personal strength –  ‘I am more vulnerable, yet stronger’ is a paradoxical sentiment that can emerge trauma. Despite nightmare conditions, we surprise ourselves with more resilience than previously imagined.    We develop increased trust in our capabilities to survive difficult situations, even prevail.  Knowing this, we move forward with the confidence we can endure future difficulties life will throw our way.
  2. Improved relationships with others – In times of tragedy we need to call on help. The giving and receiving of care when we are at our most vulnerable revitalises our social connections, forges intimacy. Social support is instrumental in building resilience after a trauma. ‘The quality of your life depends on the quality of your relationships,’ as the psychotherapist and author Esther Perel likes to say, and these are often strengthened and deepened in times of trauma.
  3. New possibilities for one’s life –  Viktor Frankl famously said ‘When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.’  Often a trauma leads to ‘positive disintegration’ of our former identity – it can feel like the self we knew is lying in pieces on the floor but we are then able to pick up each piece one by one and examine which ones we want to carry with us, which we may want to discard as no longer relevant or desirable.  We create space for new ‘pieces,’ additional qualities that emerge, updating and enlarging our sense of self.
  4. A greater appreciation of life – Devastating loss tends to refocus the lens on a growing gratitude for all we have. We become less complacent, more appreciative of everyday pleasures and kindnesses once overlooked. We embrace finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. The importance of gratitude, of ‘savouring the good,’ is no longer theoretical or intellectual, but rather felt on a personal, visceral level.  
  5. Spiritual development – For some, the Dark Night of the Soul is followed by an ‘awakening’ experience, a felt union with the divine, an interconnectedness with the great mystery of life and an appreciation of our place and purpose within it.    

Not everyone who experiences trauma will see growth in one or all of these areas. And some may experience it elsewhere - I’ve known clients who found creative inspiration in their pain and created beautiful art from it. None of it comes easily considering the starting place is a pretty devastating one. But my belief is we can help each other cope through the worst and emerge from it stronger. That life may not have worked out the way we initially imagined, but there is beauty and fulfilment still to be found in the new post-trauma terrain.  

Kelly Hearn is a psychotherapist & co-founder of Examined Life (www.examinedlife.co.uk IG: @examinedlifetherapy).

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