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How Can We Find Meaning in Trauma

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In my late teens, I became interested in Buddhist philosophy and took great comfort in its teachings on suffering.

It explains that suffering is a pervasive part of life. And that it’s not only the obvious kinds of suffering but also the attachment to happiness and neutral emotions that creates suffering.

The impermanent nature of everything means that clinging to pleasure inevitably results in suffering because it will eventually end. Conversely, accepting suffering and developing a deep understanding of impermanence will lead to liberation from suffering.

That’s easy to accept when life’s going smoothly but what happens when we’re faced with something that crushes our belief in the world and the good of people? When we come close to death or witness the death of someone else?

Posttraumatic growth

There isn’t one single way to deal with a traumatic event. How you experience and process trauma depends on your history, coping mechanisms, biology, social support, your behaviour and thought processes during and after the event and other personal, environmental and cultural factors.  

Posttraumatic growth refers to trauma being a catalyst for positive change, including people experiencing growth within themselves, in their relationships with others and changes in their philosophy of life.

It doesn’t mean the event itself is considered positive; it’s more about the outcome of the event and the fact that people have the capacity to grow from difficulty.  

Arguably, this notion might instil pressure on survivors who don’t experience growth as a result of trauma. It might create a feeling of guilt, inadequacy or a sense of ‘what the hell do you know about what I’ve been through?’

No one should tell you how to deal with your stuff.

But some research has found that one-half to two-thirds of survivors experience at least one element of post-traumatic growth. These are:

  • Personal strength
  • Deeper relationships with others
  • New perspectives on life
  • Appreciation of life
  • Spirituality

If you’re a survivor and you can identify with just one of these or can find one example of relating to these, it shows a level of growth. And that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Going through hell can give you a deeper experience of what it means to be alive. So as well as having the potential to make you feel scared, broken or damaged, betrayed, abused or helpless, it can also increase your appreciation for life, make you kinder, more in tune with people and so forth.

Finding meaning

Trauma can be like an earthquake erupting through your mind and body, robbing you of your sense of safety and stability and then leaving you to pick up the pieces, often without a strong grip on reality or who you are.

It can mean facing yourself, your life and choices and that’s often extremely uncomfortable.  Suddenly you have to make sense of yourself, others and the world all over again and how you do that can change the course of your life.

In a 2004 research, professor of psychology, Richard Tedeschi states that, ‘the struggle with the trauma is what is crucial for posttraumatic growth.’

He explains that growth is more than being able to resist or not be damaged by extremely stressful events. It’s about the transformation a person experiences as a result of what happened and developing the understanding and acceptance that negative and positive effects can exist at the same time:

Despite the suffering, you can still experience the elements of posttraumatic growth. And feeling that a traumatic experience had a positive impact on your life doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no suffering.

It should be noted that the paper addresses young adults and adults, rather than children and adolescents. Trauma in childhood/ adolescents integrates differently because we haven’t fully formed our brains or personalities. That’s not to say that these young people are deficient; rather that the growth forms part of who they are much earlier, making it difficult to know the before and after and what the exact impact of the adversity has been.

Working with the trauma

No one should tell you how to frame your trauma and that you should grow or learn from it.

But if you want to find ways of doing so, seeking evidence-based psychological treatments can be helpful.

Posttraumatic growth involves educating yourself on the effects of trauma and finding a way to heal that’s best for you.

Exposure therapy has been found to be especially helpful for people with post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder. Avoiding the memory of the trauma uses up a lot of energy and disrupts the ability to recover. And although facing it can be extremely difficult, it will allow you to process it in a safe and supportive environment, which paves the way for growth to happen.

There’s empirical evidence that interventions such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are effective for addressing and reframing unhelpful thoughts and beliefs about yourself, others and the world.

Another intervention worth mentioning is narrative exposure therapy (NET). The way you tell the story of your life, or certain parts of your life, has a huge impact on the way you think, feel and behave. NET helps you to tell that story, fill gaps in memory and to include all the positive things that have happened – even if it might be hard to recall those sometimes.

Final thoughts

Buddhism teaches that suffering is an inevitable part of life but it also teaches that we can learn how to be happy despite of this truth. Trauma is suffering but it can also be an opportunity to grow.

Anna Drescher holds a master’s degree in psychology and mental health. She’s been working in the field for almost 10 years. 

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