Most of you have probably heard of PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but you may not have heard of Post-Traumatic Growth.
Many people who experience a traumatic event will end up with mental health symptoms like anxiety and depression that can be disabling.
However, a portion of those people also experience positive changes as a result of the trauma or crisis.
Since the 1990s, psychologists have sought to answer the question—Why is it that some people go through traumatic events or crises and end up with unexpected positive changes afterward?
Let me be clear—psychologists never minimize the significant negative effects of trauma.
Rather they seek to understand and identify how we can learn from individuals who navigated trauma and come away with positive changes they would not have had in their lives if they had not been through the traumatic event.
The Big Idea—Today we will explore research and tools you can use that will help you navigate seasons of crisis—such as COVID19—with dramatically better odds of positive transformation on the other side.
A devastating loss
Sacramento woman Candy Lightner was a real estate agent and a mother of three.
She suffered one of the worst losses anyone can have in their lifetime—the loss of a child.
On May 3rd, 1980 her 13-year-old daughter Cari was walking to a church carnival and was struck by a drunk driver. She died moments later.
Four days after the accident, Candy Lightner began advocating for better laws on drunk driving.
She quit her job and used her savings to start what would later become MADD—Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Lightner is described as a tireless fighter. She visited then Governor Jerry Brown’s office every day until a state commission against drunk driving was launched.
After several trips to Washington DC, she was eventually appointed by President Ronald Regan to the National Commission on Drunk Driving in 1984.
Inspired by her mother, her other daughter even went on to found Students Against Drunk Driving.
I have two daughters of my own, ages 1 and 4. Just thinking about losing one of my daughters almost knocks the wind out of me as I sit here writing this.
And while I’m certain that Candy Lightner would have given anything to have her daughter back, somehow she harnessed the strength to use her tragedy as fuel for tremendous positive change in the world.
Although she suffered an unimaginable loss, it is unlikely she would have gone on to found MADD if this had not happened to her.
As author Rick Warren frequently reminds people—“Your purpose can be found in your pain.”
What can we learn from those who have experienced positive transformation following crises or tragedy?
For almost 30 years, psychologists have been looking into why some people come out of crisis with positive change.
There are two related concepts in the psychology field, resilience and post-traumatic growth.
I’ve drawn from both of these fields of study to create this post, but let me clarify the differences.
The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress (2020).
Dr.’s Richard Tadeschi and Lawrence Calhoun define Post-Traumatic Growth as positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or traumatic event.
In 1995, Tadeschi and Calhoun created the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory—which assesses growth and self-improvement a person undergoes following a trauma. This inventory is considered one of the most valid and reliable resources for evaluating factors that lead to personal growth following a stressful encounter.
Again, I want to emphasize that these factors are not a formula or prescription to eliminate the very real pain caused by trauma. They are more like oars and a life vest in the middle of a storm—but they do provide very helpful tools to cope and grow through trials and adversity.
It is worth noting that relationships are the foundation for improving how you heal from traumatic events.
Many of these things won’t just happen automatically, it’s up to you to make intentional choices to do these things consistently.
Below are eight practices from the research on resilience and post-traumatic growth that you can use to improve the way you navigate crisis.
Turn information into action
Clarify your priorities. The gift of crisis is that it strips away almost everything that isn’t supremely important. I had a significant health scare about 6 months ago that jolted me into the present and radically clarified my life priorities. When I think about what really matters, I know that I want to be a good father, husband, and a compassionate leader who serves others. I want to live my faith well. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is when someone goes through a season of crisis, but then changes nothing about their life priorities when the crisis is over.
Cultivate a gratitude practice. Gratitude is like any habit or skill, it must be practiced regularly to stay strong. With COVID19 lockdowns, many of our freedoms have been taken away and our natural tendency may be to look at what we don’t have. So now, more than ever, is the time to remind ourselves what we are grateful for every day. I like to start every day giving thanks for something and ending every day with this question to my wife—What were 2 wins you had today? It’s a great way to open and close your day with a grateful heart. Gratitude has also been linked to enhanced immune functioning and an improved sense of well-being, two things we can all use right now.
Be proactive—Use your strengths for positive impact. People generally don’t do well when they feel they have no control. By using your gifts and strengths to help others during COVID 19, it helps you feel that you have a small measure of control during a chaotic time, and using your strengths gives you energy and a sense of purpose.
Be real about your emotions. Suppressing your emotions is almost never a good thing. Ignoring your emotions can even cause physical symptoms. Right now we are experiencing real grief over many different kinds of losses, and it is important to allow for authentic emotional expression. Your emotions may fluctuate wildly over the coming months. Make sure to journal or talk to a trusted friend more during this season.
You can’t pour from an empty cup. This week I listened to a great interview with Anthony Fauci who is leading the fight for COVID 19 in the United States. His wife apparently told him he would crash from exhaustion in a week if he didn’t sleep more, exercise, and keep a good diet. He went for a run that night and logged more hours of sleep. If he can make time, so can you.
Extend more grace than usual to yourself and others. Right now everyone’s threshold for tolerating stress has been lowered. Our minds are expending a lot of energy trying to make sense of this situation and all the changes. Now is a time when people need more compassion than ever.
Ask for and accept support from your circle. In our culture of hardcore individualism, asking for help is very hard for some people. Make sure you don’t deprive yourself or the people that love you of the incredible gift of navigating crisis with a community of support.
Search for purpose. Research on Post-Traumatic Growth shows that people who experience trauma and find deeper spiritual meaning experience more positive transformation. Some questions to think about—What new opportunities or gifts does this season bring for me? What purpose can I find in my pain? How can this situation help me develop into the kind of person I want to become?
Have a great weekend!
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- APA Resilience Definition https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience
- Post Traumatic Growth Research Group https://ptgi.uncc.edu/ptg-research-group/
- Candy Lightner Bio https://www.biography.com/activist/candy-lightner