Post-Traumatic Growth Is Painful But Worth the Work

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Post-Traumatic Growth Is Painful But Worth the Work
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

I had my “aha moment” while reading a parenting book. What I didn’t expect was that learning how to better connect with my children would lead me to greater understand myself. Buried halfway through the book, mid-chapter and paragraph, was a brief reference to post-traumatic growth. The author’s explanation matched my own experience of surviving breast cancer and working through my medical trauma in therapy.

The next week, I touched base with my therapist. We were talking about an upcoming appointment I had, when she asked me if I’d ever heard of post-traumatic growth. I told her I had just read about it in a book, and I was ready to learn more. I certainly believe it wasn’t a coincidence that twice in one week I was hearing about post-traumatic growth.

When you think of trauma, or PTSD in particular, you might think of combat veterans. However, Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in New York City and faculty member at Columbia University, explains that there are many life experiences that can result in trauma. These experiences include “sexual violence, abusive relationships, being the target of burglary, or gun violence.” Other traumatic experiences may include “the unexpected death of a loved one by suicide, accident, or even in today’s pandemic, losing someone unexpectedly because of COVID without being able to properly say goodbye.” Of course, my own journey through medical trauma, including a mastectomy and a misdiagnosis that almost killed me, can be added to the list.

Post-traumatic growth is rather self-explanatory. After trauma, a person may experience growth. What this looks like in real life is different for each person. Dr. Hafeez shared that some can be in therapy for years before they experience peace, closure, or resolution. There are signs of post-traumatic growth including in one’s relationships with others as well as “appreciation for life, spiritual strength, the courage to go after the things you had disregarded in the past, and resilience.”

Resilience is a key player here. It’s developed after a traumatizing event by working and reflecting on what occurred. But resilience isn’t just the result of working through the trauma, Dr. Hafeez shared. The act of working on the trauma itself is a way of practicing resilience. Yes, by simply starting your post-traumatic journey, you are practicing resilience.

Some may think that post-traumatic growth means that the trauma and resulting pain and grief are invalidated. However, personally growing from trauma “does not mean the trauma was not significant,” Dr. Hafeez says. Rather, growth is “a testament to your resilience.”

The more I learned about post-traumatic growth, the more I delved into my past. My therapist had me create a trauma timeline. Yes, it is a simple as it sounds. She wanted me to record every significant (in my eyes) past trauma and put it on paper. Once I did this, I had another aha moment. I’d never seen my trauma in such a plain-as-day form before. Suddenly, my trauma had order and organization. Looking at this sheet of notebook paper, I felt even more proud of my post-traumatic growth, such as my ability to attend a medical appointment without breaking down and assuming the worst.

I asked Dr. Hafeez about women and our habit of pushing our own trauma to the side for the sake of others, especially our families. After all, working on trauma takes time and energy. I know many women who are trying to battle trauma on their own, and it’s not working. What does Dr. Hafeez recommend? What she shared floored me. “In a way, putting people’s needs before our own is a way for us to avoid issues.” Avoidance doesn’t always happen intentionally. Women might “stop striving for their own goals or need for fulfillment when they make their life circulate around the life of loved ones.”

She wants us to know, “It is worth taking the time to consult with a professional and work on your issues because one, you are giving yourself the opportunity to lighten the weight you carry with you.” The other perk? “You are moving forward towards a version of yourself that may be able to give even more to your loved ones and receive even more love.”

If you opt to begin the healing journey from trauma, remember that trauma, much like grief, isn’t linear. Dr. Hafeez shares that there are triggers that can crop up, causing the patient to “relive unpleasant experiences or ponder on aspects of their trauma, which they may have already worked through.” It’s a good idea to continue your relationship with your mental health professional and touch base with them when trauma re-rears its ugly head.

One struggle I’ve dealt with is traumaversaries. In fact, I didn’t even have a name for it until a few years ago. Every February and March, I struggle. It’s like there’s a dark cloud that hangs over me every day. It dawned on me that one of my trauma dates was late March, the day I almost died in an emergency room from undiagnosed type 1 diabetes. My body remembered that date on the calendar, but my brain didn’t. What could I do with this predictable and unpleasant season each year?

Dr. Hafeez tells us traumaversaries “are the anniversaries of traumatic events like a family death, a health diagnosis, or the date of an assault.” Every patient may treat their traumaversary differently. She explains that some commemorate the anniversary, which can be helpful. She’s seen this in cases of natural disasters or a shooting, something a community has experienced. Others may try to ignore their traumaversary, but this can backfire.

The best way to go? With the help of a mental health professional, the person should allow themselves to feel what they feel. It’s okay to let go of any expectations of post-traumatic growth from themselves and others. The patient isn’t obligated to “be ceremonial or presentational about their trauma, even with just themselves.” Dr. Hafeez also says that traumaversaries aren’t deadlines in which the patient should feel they should wrap up their trauma and move on. A healthier option? Traumaversaries can serve as empowering reminders of “what you have gotten through and where you are headed, even if you aren’t sure of where that is.”

Ultimately, trauma work is hard and needs to be personalized. “The important thing is to accept your feelings” Dr. Hafeez says, “and move forward at your own pace, not anyone else’s.” We really can do hard things after trauma, but it’s not as easy as just willing ourselves to do them. We have to commit to getting down and dirty by utilizing the help of a professional, and then moving forward.

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