Post-Traumatic Growth: Can You Find Happiness After a Horrible Event?
Have you ever witnessed an event so devastating that it shocked the very core of your personality? Or perhaps you’ve heard about the struggles of those who’ve been through trauma. Despite getting past a traumatic event, some people never really manage to recover completely. Fortunately, there is a way to overcome trauma and find happiness once again - post-traumatic growth.
In recent years, the concept of ‘post-traumatic growth’ has gained massive popularity among researchers and mental health professionals.
The main reason why mental health professionals have taken a keen interest in strategies for cultivating growth after a traumatic event is somewhat obvious. We live in a world where bad things can happen out of nowhere.
And numerous events can have a profoundly traumatic impact on our internal world. From facing the horrors of war to losing the person we love or dealing with a chronic condition.
To prevent further complications such as panic attacks, chronic depression or even medical conditions, we must develop resilience in the face of adversity. We must find the courage to smile again and overcome whatever life throws down our path.
Post-traumatic growth is about embracing the “trauma survivor” condition. It’s about rebuilding a better, stronger version of yourself. But before we get to that, let’s take a closer look at what trauma is and why it’s so difficult to overcome it.
What is Trauma?
To avoid boring textbook definitions and stick to something simple, let’s look at how the Cambridge Dictionary defines trauma. According to the dictionary, the word ‘trauma’ refers to a severe emotional shock and pain caused by an extremely upsetting experience.
Trauma is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Unlike stress, which temporarily affects the human psyche, trauma diminishes our ability to manage the problems we face, causing total breakdown.
Those of us who’ve gone through a traumatic event often describe it in terms of emotional pain or “something broken within me.”
But perhaps an even better description is that of American psychiatrist Peter A. Levine:
“The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect.” - Peter A. Levine
In other words, dealing with a traumatic event feels like the end of the world but at the same time opens the door to amazing personal transformation. Although it’s obvious that no sane person would choose to face a traumatic event for the sole purpose of ‘sparking’ self-growth, for those who’ve already dealt with trauma, it’s comforting to know there’s always a way to ‘pick up the broken pieces’ and discover the joy of living a new life.
What are Its Telltale Signs?
Although we cannot observe trauma directly, we can feel its painful presence both in body and mind. People who’ve been through a traumatic event will often appear agitated and disoriented. It’s like their mind is shrouded in a cloud of doubt and confusion. Another relevant indicator of trauma is anxiety; a constant state of restlessness and worry that drains their energy and prevents them from rediscovering the joy of living.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the psychological signs of trauma:
- Flashbacks – involuntary recurrent images depicting the traumatic event.
- Misdirected anger – you scream and shout at those who are trying to help you.
- Lack of focus – you find it difficult to remain focused on a given task.
- Mood swings – one minute you seem ok, next minute you find yourself overwhelmed by fear and panic.
- Guilt – you keep blaming yourself for the terrible things that have happened to you.
- Shame – you feel too embarrassed to open up about your unfortunate past.
- Denial – you claim everything’s fine, yet you feel broken on the inside.
- Dissociation – your psyche tends to isolate the trauma by splitting into two separate entities.
- Suicidal thoughts – you wish to end the pain and suffering by all means.
But aside from the emotional damage that trauma can inflict upon us, there are also a series of physical manifestations which may indicate the presence of trauma:
- Exhaustion – you feel so drained of energy that you begin to ignore daily chores.
- Nightmares/poor-quality sleep – the memories of past struggles tend to occur in your dreams.
- Migraines – in the absence of physical illness
- Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) – resulting from an overly sensitive autonomous nervous system.
- Cold sweats – which often accompany flashbacks or nightmares.
As you can see, trauma is a mental scar that inflicts substantial damage upon the physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and even relational aspects of our life. Its effects can significantly reduce our daily functioning and have a profoundly negative impact on our overall quality of life.
But no matter how painful trauma might be, there’s always a way out, and post-traumatic growth is your ticket to a happier life.
Is There Life After Trauma?
For those who’ve been through traumatic events, life often takes a sudden turn for the absolute worst. It’s hard to remember a time when you were happy and optimistic when all you can think about is the horrors that you were forced to witness firsthand.
Experiences such as verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, wars, terrorist attacks, accidents, natural disasters, the death of a loved one, and so on can leave us hopeless and on the brink of desperation.
But the first reactions that we experience right after a traumatic event are shock and confusion. The overall sensation is surreal, and the only question that goes through your head is - Why me?
What follows afterward is an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety; like the entire world has suddenly turned into a dangerous place where you can no longer find comfort and safety.
As you can imagine, getting off this mind-numbing roller coaster of painful emotions can be quite challenging, but not impossible.
When you go through a traumatic event, it’s not the situation that causes your emotional pain, but the way you choose to interpret it. In other words, no matter how much suffering trauma has caused you, eventually, it’s up to you to decide how you wish to integrate the unpleasant event that has robbed you of joy and inner peace.
Long story short, there’s definitely life after trauma, and it’s within your power to seize it. Instead of letting past struggles ruin your present and future, why not use this opportunity to reinvent yourself and rediscover lost happiness!?
What is Post-Traumatic Growth?
In broad lines, post-traumatic growth refers to a process of self-exploration and self-discovery that will help you overcome the unfortunate events that have shattered your inner universe.
As Jonathan Haidt mentions in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, post-traumatic growth is:
A direct contrast to post-traumatic stress disorder where individuals find no benefit from their trauma only pain and anxiety.
In recent years, scientists have conducted extensive studies, hoping to discover the inner workings of this amazing process. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that post-traumatic growth is a viable approach to achieving personal development. 
Through post-traumatic growth, you offer yourself the chance to achieve emotional stability, enjoy meaningful relationships, and gain a brighter perspective on life.
Post-traumatic growth involves a mindset shift. In other words, you stop treating yourself as a victim and choose to see yourself as a proud survivor who lived to tell his story and even inspire others.
Once you manage to change the way you think about yourself and the unpleasant events that have robbed you of peace and happiness, you can begin implementing habits that allow you to achieve growth on all levels.
Remember, post-traumatic growth is an inside-out approach to health and well-being. In other words, you change the way you feel and behave by changing the way you think.
Post-Traumatic Growth: The Pathway to Happiness and Wholeness
When it comes to post-traumatic growth, experts believe there are two key variables which may dictate the outcome of this process.
The first one is time. In other words, post-traumatic growth doesn’t happen overnight. No matter how motivated and eager you are to invest in activities and practices that help you overcome trauma, you need patience to see this goal through. You must give yourself enough time to process the traumatic event.
The second variable is optimism. In a study on post-trauma adaptation, researchers discovered that optimism predicts benefit finding.  This means that people who adopt an optimistic perspective find it easier to identify the benefits of making positive changes.
In the end, the purpose of post-traumatic growth is to help you ‘pick up the broken pieces’ and become more resilient than you were before. When trauma has left you feeling hopeless and broken, personal growth is what will restore your sense of wholeness.
And that newly-gained sense of wholeness represents the foundation of a happy and fulfilling life.
How to Foster Post-Traumatic Growth in 10 Simple Steps
Step 1: Embrace your emotions (even the less pleasant ones).
As you can imagine, trauma is associated with a wide array of unpleasant emotions such as anger, guilt, or shame. And when the memory of your trauma is still vivid, the intensity of our emotional reactions can be quite unbearable.
In general, we tend to run and hide from negative emotions. We bury them deep beneath the surface of our conscious mind or seek to ‘cover’ them by adopting unhealthy coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, the more you try to avoid painful emotions, the stronger they get.
The healthy alternative – though you might not like it – is to embrace them. Give yourself the chance to experience anger, guilt or any other emotion you tend to avoid. Remain in that unpleasant state long enough to realize that, even though it hurts, you are strong enough to cope with it.
Befriend your negative emotions, and you will regain the self-control that trauma has robbed you of.
Step 2: Remain anchored in the present.
People who’ve been through a traumatic event tend to linger in the past. And who could blame them? When you’re haunted by the painful memory of past sufferings, you cease to pay attention to what goes on around you.
Slowly but surely, you begin to spend most of your day ruminating about the past, with zero hope for a brighter future. You lose yourself in a downward spiral of negative thoughts and painful images.
A recent study on post-traumatic growth in women with breast cancer revealed that rumination plays a vital role in both positive and negative psychological responses. 
In other words, the terms in which we choose to think about trauma and the time we spend ruminating about past painful events can shape our current and future actions.
One way in which you can put aside the painful past and remain focused on the present moment is mindfulness meditation. By learning to simply observe your thoughts, without getting caught up with them, you can turn an eye towards a brighter future.
Step 3: Rewrite your personal story.
The story we tell about ourselves, and the events that shaped our personality, play a crucial role in post-traumatic growth.
When trauma has left you feeling broken and hopeless, your personal story can quickly turn into a tragedy. However, the same trauma that determined you to change your narrative can also give rise to amazing growth opportunities.
Let’s hear it from Jim Rendon, author of Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth:
“The stories people tell about who they are and what their lives can and can’t be are remarkably important. They can trap individuals in a life that no longer works or can open the door to something new and transformative. Traumatic events have the capacity not only to upend those stories, but they can also be the catalyst that forces people to find new and often better narratives for ourselves.”
Don’t let a trauma ‘kill’ your uniqueness and authenticity. Rewrite your personal story and present yourself as the proud survivor who’s overcome trauma and found the path to a brighter and happier life.
Step 4: Stick to a routine.
For many of us, a strict daily routine is the equivalent of boredom. And that’s because the activities that take up most of our time are not always in tune with our true desires and goals.
But having a routine doesn’t mean doing the exact same thing over and over again. It’s more about being disciplined and oriented towards a set of goals. It means packing your schedule with fun, healthy, and productive activities that help you achieve personal and professional growth.
As you can imagine, sticking to a routine is an excellent approach to post-traumatic growth. Instead of spending all day feeling sorry for yourself and ruminating about past struggles, you push yourself to achieve progress.
Health, happiness, and growth don’t appear out of thin air. It is up to us to cultivate a routine that reflects our authentic desires and takes us closer to personal fulfillment.
Step 5: Seek support from those who understand.
Social support is perhaps one of the most popular means by which we offer aid to those who are in pain and suffering.
Sadly, those who’ve been through a traumatic event rarely seek help. Keep in mind that avoidance and denial are the primary coping mechanisms that keep the memory of trauma alive. In other words, you’re so desperate to convince yourself that everything is fine that you reject any form of support from those who love and care about you.
But if, for example, you’ve struggled with trauma for an extensive period, it’s obvious that you can’t overcome it by yourself.
Seeking help from those closest to you isn’t a sign of weakness, but courage. You are brave enough to admit you have a problem that overshadows your ability to cope.
Allow those who are there for you to guide your steps toward a happier life.
Step 6: Meditate your troubles away.
We know for a fact that people who are dealing with trauma are often troubled by stress and anxiety. The fear of not having to go through the same nightmare again can push us to adopt an overly-anxious attitude toward other people and the world in general. On top of that comes the unbearable stress generated by flashbacks and constant rumination.
Fortunately, researchers believe meditation can significantly reduce psychological stress , thus easing the symptoms associated with trauma. Furthermore, it seems practices such as meditation and yoga are a viable second-line treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. 
Considering the substantial scientific evidence that researchers have uncovered, it’s obvious that meditation can play a vital role in the process of post-traumatic growth.
And the best part is that the Internet is bristling with articles, blogs, guides, and all sorts of useful materials that will help you get started with this practice. Try it and be amazed at the results you will experience within a couple of weeks.
Remember, post-traumatic growth is not about waiting for the trauma to go away but getting actively involved in discovering a life that brings you happiness and fulfillment.
Step 7: Welcome novelty and creativity into your life.
Since the idea of post-traumatic growth is giving yourself a chance to start fresh, perhaps it’s time to invite originality onto your life.
The tendency of a mind troubled by trauma is to replay that event over and over again. As a result, you remain stuck in this vicious circle of doubt, fear, and disappointment; never changing, never growing.
An excellent way to break this vicious circle is by giving yourself a ‘push’ toward something new and exciting. Something to mark the beginning of a happier chapter of your life.
Buy yourself a set of paint and brushes and let your imagination flow onto a fresh canvas; take up dancing lessons; learn how to play an instrument; do something that sparks your curiosity.
As Jim Rohn once said:
“Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design for the present.” - Jim Rohn
Step 8: Cultivate optimism.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, optimism is the kryptonite of trauma. An optimistic attitude allows you to see the bright side of things and hope for a better future.
In the context of post-traumatic growth, optimism is the driving force that helps you put plans in motion and regain the peace of mind and joy that you’ve been longing for.
Being driven by the belief that there’s a lot of personal growth to be found after trauma is a genuinely encouraging idea; one that will motivate you to push forward in the face of adversity.
And once again, it all comes down to your personal story. The way in which you choose to see yourself, others, and the world, in general, can help you find the optimism you need to smile again.
Give up on the victim mentality and embrace the optimistic future that awaits you.
Step 9: Practice self-care.
In recent years, the concept of self-care has gained massive popularity.
But the idea of doing things for yourself – for your health and well-being – might sound a bit strange and uncomfortable for those who’ve struggled with trauma.
How can you do something nice for yourself, when you carry the burden of guilt and shame?
How can you invest in something pleasant and relaxing, when you hold yourself responsible and refuse ‘let your guard down’ and enjoy life for a moment?
Though it might feel a bit strange at first, caring for yourself – for your needs and desires – is an act of self-compassion and self-respect. In other words, you place yourself first for once. You cease to be a victim and choose to put your health and happiness above all else.
Stop ignoring your needs and start caring for yourself. You deserve it!
Step 10: Be pat
In the end, patience is the key ingredient of post-traumatic growth.
Your willingness to remain focused on your goals; your desire to regain happiness; your unbreakable optimism; all these practices demand your patience.
There will be times when life throws you a curve ball; times when the memory of past sufferings will seem unbearable; times when you feel like you can’t take it anymore.
And when those times are upon you, remember to be patient and stick to your path.
Post-traumatic growth is a continuous process that will last for the rest of your life. But when you’re patient enough to allow positive change to follow its course, amazing things can happen.
To sum up
Overall, post-traumatic growth is the safest and most reliable path toward happiness and healing. It is a journey that will require dedication, active involvement, and a lot of patience on your part. But nothing good is ever achieved without effort.
To recap the steps toward post-traumatic growth:
- Embrace your painful emotions so that you may have the strength to overcome them
- Put aside the painful past and turn your attention towards the present
- Create a personal story in which you are the proud survivor
- Stick to a pleasant routine
- Allow yourself to receive the support of those who care about you
- Use meditation to gain some piece of mind
- Invest in new and exciting activities
- Be optimistic
- Place yourself first and care for your needs
- And lastly, be patient.
Trauma, no matter how painful and unbearable it might seem, presents a fantastic opportunity for growth. It’s up to you seize it and regain the happiness and joy of living.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alexander Draghici is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, CBT practitioner and co-founder at psycheguide.com. His work focuses mainly on strategies designed to help people manage and prevent two of the most common mental issues – anxiety and depression.