Transformation After Trauma

TRIGGER WARNING: This episode/blog contains information about (gun) violence which may be triggering to survivors.

Do you think something good can come from a traumatic experience? 

Or do you feel like awful things simply happen to us, and nothing productive comes from them? 

I explore these questions in today’s episode on post-traumatic growth. I talk about the potential for positive experiences after traumatic events, and I share what I have witnessed as a psychotherapist and in the aftermath of my own traumatic experiences.

Prefer the audio? Listen here.

What is Post-Traumatic Growth?

The general concept of traumatic experiences leading to positive changes is as old as time. In the mid-90s, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun (both psychologists) coined “post-traumatic growth” as an actual therapeutic term. 

They proposed post-traumatic growth happens in five areas of our lives

  1. Appreciation for life
  2. Relationships with others
  3. New possibilities in life
  4. Personal strength
  5. A spiritual change

I have witnessed this both in my life and as a young psychotherapist. Before the term “post-traumatic growth” existed, I noticed a pattern of accelerated growth in clients after we processed traumatic experiences. The window for transformation became much wider – it seemed we could do years of work in months. 

My Traumatic Experience

My husband (then boyfriend) and I were held up at gunpoint nearly 25 years ago.

I won’t go into detail as I have talked about it before. Instead, I want to focus on what happened after this traumatic experience. 

I had intrusive thoughts and scary dreams. I was afraid to be alone in my own house. It felt like everyone was sneaking up on me at all times. 

It happened on a beautiful, pitch-dark summer night, and whenever a similar night occurred, I became anxious. 

I was suddenly afraid to do things I wasn’t afraid to do before. I knew I had to deal with each of them in therapy if I wanted to get better and prevent my life from shrinking, and I did. (I was privileged to have been able to afford therapy.) 

As a result, my post-traumatic response to being held up did not fall into the category of post-traumatic stress syndrome because it happened over a normal time period. (If your symptoms start lessening three months to a year following a traumatic experience, you are going in the right direction.) 

My responses were normal trauma responses, but in post-traumatic stress syndrome, a trauma response becomes frozen in time. The stimuli bring you back to the original experience and you feel like you are living through it all over again. 

If you have suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, studies show you can still experience post-traumatic growth. The two are not mutually exclusive. 

What Can Post-Traumatic Growth Look Like?

In addition to being held up, I received two cancer diagnoses, one right after the other. I called this period “getting my Ph.D. in Fear.” 

But all of these traumatic experiences inspired me to change my life. 

Tedeschi and Calhoun’s list of five areas of growth reflect my experience. 

My appreciation for life went up by 15x. You stop taking life for granted when you realize it can be gone in a moment. You stop thinking you have all the tomorrow’s in the world because you become so friggin’ clear you may not. Every chance you get to do more of this amazing thing called life is a gift. 

In my relationships with others, I stopped taking people for granted. I realized life is not only precious but also fleeting. 

While this may sound depressing, it made me more committed to my relationships, my friendships, and my family. 

Before these traumatic experiences, I was pretty clear on my strengths, but when you go through gnarly things, you realize you are a boss. 

Going through these experiences created a solid sense of self. I know I will be okay no matter what life throws at me. I know I can count on myself and do hard things. (Thank you, Glennon Doyle, for the reminder! We can all do hard things and survive 🙌.) 

I experienced spiritual change, too. I began to seek out the meaning of life and explore what I believe happens after we leave this incarnation. I also began working with Deepak Chopra and meditating. 

All of this was part of my post-traumatic growth. I sought it out because the foundation of perspective on the way the world works was shaken to its core. I became inspired to consciously and actively question the status quo and shape my perspective based on my lived experiences. 

I was always a helper, but something about my traumatic experiences was transformational.

My whole business was born out of the desire to help others avoid suffering as I did. You are not alone, and if you find yourself in a stuck or hurt place, like if you just got a cancer diagnosis, I want to help. 

For journal prompts that might help you integrate your experiences into the tapestry of your life, download the guide here

How Can You Reframe Your Traumatic Experiences?

If you want to reframe your traumatic experiences, I have three ideas for you. 

  1. Therapy

Working with a specialized trauma or trauma-informed therapist is a good idea if you can afford it. Therapy will likely help you avoid becoming frozen in a post-traumatic stress syndrome experience. 

I highly recommend BetterHelp to find a therapist, and my team and I have fully vetted their services. (If you choose to sign up for BetterHelp, I will receive a commission on the referral, but please know that I only recommend services that I know and trust.) Check out this blog for tips on finding the right therapist.

If you cannot afford therapy, amazing books like The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk might be helpful. If you are in crisis, I also have a list of free resources on this page

  1. Let Yourself Grieve

The grieving process is crucial with trauma because you will never be the same again. 

This does not have to be a bad thing, but it can be a painful realization. 

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I needed to mourn my innocence and the old me. I never thought I would get cancer. I was vegetarian, healthy as hell, consistently exercised, and stopped drinking when I was young. 

I was pissed off at my body. I remember thinking, I feel like I’ve treated you pretty well and you let me down. 

Of course, anyone can get cancer, but I needed to mourn this. 

Let yourself grieve the significant losses you’ve experienced in life. Have self-compassion for what you’ve gone through and for what will not be the same again. 

Grieving is a central component of post-traumatic growth. The goal is not to be the same as you were before your traumatic experiences. The goal is to integrate these experiences into the tapestry of your life. When we do not process trauma, it does not get integrated into our tapestry. It remains separate from it, which is what keeps us stuck.

  1. Write Your Story

To create more post-traumatic growth, Rokelle Lerner, a therapist, author, and lecturer, recommends writing. Writing can be an experiential strategy to identify, clarify, and solidify your post-traumatic growth. 

Rokelle says, “Every time we describe our life’s events, we’re both providing and discovering underlying patterns of meaning because it is meaning that we make of our experience that shapes how we feel, think, and respond.”

What Rokelle says is true, and the guide (which you can download here) contains her writing prompts. If you have a charged traumatic experience to work through, I think you will find these prompts valuable.

A Note on Helping Others Through

How many stories have you heard or read about people having terrible experiences after which they create a foundation to help thousands of other people suffer less? 

This is a perfect example of post-traumatic growth. Those folks are inspired to share their pain to reduce the pain of others. They feel connected to victims of a similar experience.

I heard Deepak Chopra say this years ago: “If you have a terrible, painful experience and you learn something that can lessen the suffering of others who have also experienced this, you must share it.”

This thought has stuck with me. I have lived by it. My dream and dharma are to help you lessen your suffering. I hope what I create here each week elevates your joy and lessens your suffering. My goal is positive world domination. I want us to create a collective, positive ripple in the world. Because the healthier we are as a global community, the healthier the world will be. 

I hope this episode added value to your life. Download the guide for more ideas and resources to harness the power of post-traumatic growth. Let me know what you discover in the comments or over on Instagram (@terricole). 

I hope you have an amazing week and as always, take care of you. 

¹https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/emerging-wisdom/202006/why-we-need-know-about-post-traumatic-growth

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  1. Hi Terri,
    The quote from Deepak Chopra and your wish to serve others is inspiring. I have been following your thoughts on codependency for a year now (after hearing you speak during the Year of Miracles 2022) and you have changed my perspective on my place in life. Just now I am beginning to be able to give back as well, and it feels fantastic. Thank you for helping me get here.
    Blessings, Ann

    1. Hi, my husband had built a successful startup with his associate, a man named k… But this man was a lier and a lover of money, he stole a lot of money from the company for his own personal needs, leading the business to ruins. We have lost everything we had because of him. He has lied and manipulated a lot of people, using his image of wise vipassana practiser. But life is wonderful. He has not destroyed us and now we are going more far than we ever would have expected to ! Yes, a trauma can hide wonderful surprises!

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