What comes to mind when you hear the word “trauma”? Most often we associate it with negative feelings/emotions of pain, sadness, harm, and struggle. What if I told you that the trauma experiences that I have dealt with in life have enabled me to grow and learn about myself? I would like to talk about post traumatic growth. In my experience trauma can either disable you or motivate you. I experienced trauma as a child which had formed my outlook on life. Sometimes those habits are hard to break. However, it wasn’t until my adult trauma’s that I began to understand what makes Meredith tick. Trauma experiences as a child are not easy to process as children don’t have the knowledge and coping mechanisms that can be developed in adulthood.
In 2013, I traveled by commuter train to Boston to watch a friend run the Boston Marathon. I had run it the year before. I had taken up a “home base” at the Atlantic Fish Company on Boylston Street very near the finish line. In the passing time, I had unknowingly walked by both bombs within a very close time of them detonating. I had only been inside the restaurant for a minute or so when I heard the first bomb explode and felt the ground shake. My first inclination about what it may have been was maybe the catwalk or stands had collapsed at the finish line. That first explosion drew my attention out the plate glass window in the front of the restaurant and that is when I saw a flash and heard another explosion. Right then, from my training and experience, I knew they were bombs, and it was terrifying.
Through my fears, my training and experience as a State Trooper took hold. I immediately went into work mode and ushered people into the basement floors of the restaurant. People were streaming in from the street outside and were hysterical, I tried to provide them comfort. I subsequently exited the restaurant and saw a man with no leg. I assisted in grabbing tablecloths and ice from inside the restaurant, bringing them outside to aid the injured. I saw a man sitting over young Martin Richard. He looked at me and I looked at him and we knew he was dead. That picture is forever engrained in my mind. I then saw two men carrying his sister, toward an awaiting Rescue. The response to the tragedy was extremely fast as there were Rescue personnel already on standby at the finish line for runners. As a law enforcement officer, we call this “controlled chaos”. This controlled chaos are the situational conditions that we have been trained to handle. Rescues, doctor, nurses were right at the finish line to assist the finishing athletes, little did they know they would have a much different task that day.
Although I sought out therapy for what I experienced, I didn’t do enough work. I was back to work quickly to avoid watching the media attention, and subsequently dealing with the stressors of work on top of what I had experienced in Boston. A couple years later I found myself in an abusive relationship and it was during this time I can now see that I fell into a steep downward spiral. In 2017 I had to have shoulder surgery from a dislocated shoulder suffered while hiking in Vermont. I had been in Vermont at a program for first responders suffering from addiction/substance abuse. Yes, I had found solace in the bottom of a liquor bottle like many first responders. After surgery, I voluntarily admitted myself into a 30-day residential treatment program in Michigan for those suffering from addiction and co-occurring disorders. It was the best decision I have ever made. For those of you that have never experienced an inpatient treatment program, you are essentially cut off from the rest of the world. No cell phones, no internet, no television. Your immediate job is to address yourself while removing outside influences and stressors so that you can concentrate on yourself. Often throughout life, addressing our inner being is the last thing on a list of many things to do. Yet it is the most crucial thing for our overall wellbeing.
Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) can occur from any experience that challenges your core values and beliefs about the world: what you’re capable of, the nature of the world, the nature of others, and your philosophy about life. (HPRC, 2022) Studies have found that more than half of all trauma survivors report positive change—far more than report the much better-known post-traumatic stress disorder. (Rendon, J., 2015) Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a theory that explains this kind of transformation following trauma. It was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, in the mid-1990s, and holds that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward. (Collier, 2016)
People who have experienced trauma must decide whether that trauma will define them or control them. That decision is most often made unconsciously. I would argue that part of PTG is bringing that unconscious thought to conscious action. That decision is made based on the experience at the time and place that the individual occupies. The decision is often uncontrollable, until you figure out what makes you “tick”. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom. (Pattakos, A., Dundon, E., 2017) Tedeschi, the leading psychologist in PTG, stated, “we’ve learned that negative experiences can spur positive change, including a recognition of personal strength, the exploration of new possibilities, improved relationships, a greater appreciation for life, and spiritual growth. (Tedeschi, 2020)
In my experience, I have grown to learn more about myself in my 40’s then I have in my entire life. That is not to say that it didn’t take work. When you find yourself stuck and realize that it is time to take time for you, I can say it is a freeing experience. Like many others, I found it extremely difficult to say “no”. Learning to say “no” can be exhilarating. PTG is life changing. It’s important to understand and accept that our life experiences may influence our actions and beliefs, but they don’t need to control us. Having a clear mind to rationally attack life’s “bumps in the road” is necessary for this growth. In my experience, PTG has forced me to try new things, brought what is important into perspective, gave me a new perspective on things, allowed me to grow as a person, forced me out of my comfort zone, provided me with a new understanding on others experiencing trauma, and made me realize that I am human. Through PTG you begin to understand just what resilience is and how we can increase our tolerance of uncomfortable things. Resilience is a crucial protective factor in the individual that resists the influence of multiple risk factors. (Bartol & Bartol, pg. 37, 2021) Resilience defined is successful coping with or overcoming risk and adversity, the development of competence in the face of severe stress and hardship, and success in developmental tasks or meeting societal expectations. (McKnight & Loper, 2002, pg. 188)
Furthermore, we all need to learn to listen to our bodies. It is the first indication that something is amiss, and we all too often ignore the signs. Being able to detect even slight changes in our bodies can help us to recognize what we are experiencing and assist us in making better decisions. Learning through mindfulness to be present in the moment. It is imperative that we make time for ourselves, however small time that may be. It is crucial to our wellbeing.
Bartol, C., & Bartol, A. (2021). Criminal behavior: A Psychological Approach (12th ed.). Boston.
Collier, L. (2016, November). Growth after trauma. Monitor on Psychology. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma
Human Performance Resources by CHAMP (HPRC), 5 benefits of post-traumatic growth. (2020, September 11). Retrieved August 11, 2022, from https://www.hprc-online.org/mental-fitness/mental-health/5-benefits-post-traumatic
McKnight, L.R., & Loper, A.B. (2002). The effect of risk and resilience factors on the prediction of delinquency in adolescent girls. School Psychology International, 23, 186-198.
Pattakos, A., & Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of our thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s principles for discovering meaning in life and work. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Rendon, J. (2015, July 22). How trauma can change you-for the better. Time. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://time.com/3967885/how-trauma-can-change-you-for-the-better/
Tedeschi, P. G. (2020, August 31). Growth after trauma. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2020/07/growth-after-trauma