On a recent trip to Australia, we were walking through the bush, as they call it, when we noticed many trees that were black from fire yet looked healthy beyond words, with shoots bursting out of almost every branch. Inquiring about this, we learned that they were eucalyptus, or gum, trees, which are known to thrive after being burned by fire. In fact, it is an important part of their life cycle. Eucalyptus trees grow in a near desert- like ecosystem which is razed by fire every few years. They have not only adapted; they have dominated this ecosystem.
This led me to reflect on post-traumatic growth in people: how the journey of healing from trauma can involve powerful positive changes. In psychology, trauma can be broadly defined as anything that causes upset. Most people have heard of post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD. A less familiar term that has been more recently coined is “post-traumatic growth”. Post-traumatic growth can happen instead of, after, or during post-traumatic stress.
Post -traumatic growth is differentiated from resilience, which refers to recovery and return to baseline. With post-traumatic growth, there are significant and valuable positive changes in a person which occur because of the trauma and result in healing from it.
Many people who have had awful trauma, for example a bad car accident, a near death experience, a serious illness, or being close to someone with one of these life changing experiences, describe a vivid appreciation of life. They report that they are less likely to take simple things for granted. What a valuable gift!
Another common experience such individuals describe is noticing a change in their sense of priorities. They can be better able to see the big picture, and discern between what is important, and what isn’t. They may notice that they are no longer upset by the little things that used to upset them. They can become better able to handle adversity. These are also obviously very valuable changes.
As a result of trauma and healing from it, people can gain in self-awareness and self-acceptance, both invaluable. The struggle with meaning-making that is part of the journey is often very fruitful, often with greater spiritual development. The journey of healing from trauma has been described as transformative.
Often, there is recognition of new possibilities or paths for one’s life. This may involve a sense of purpose with a drive to help others.
On the bumpy journey in the aftermath of trauma, people can develop increased closeness or intimacy in their relationships. This can be a rich gift that gives life more enjoyment and meaning!
Another common sequela after trauma is an increased sense of personal strength. This is a powerful sense to live life by, as opposed to the opposite, which is feeling vulnerable.
As people heal from trauma they may develop more compassion for themselves and others. Compassion is a lovely energy that is healing to ourselves and others, and fundamentally helps make the world a better place.
Both trauma and post-traumatic stress can be miserable. So it’s important to recognize that the journey potentially involves invaluable changes, and that the suffering is not meaningless, even though it sometimes feels that way.