How to Grow After Traumatic Events

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring JRNI Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. In this episode, we explore the differences between stress and trauma, and what it takes to achieve positive outcomes in the aftermath of difficult experiences. 

There’s been a lot of talk this past year about the COVID-19 pandemic as a form of collective trauma. Various points of view arise around how we’re responding to it, and how best to move forward in the eventual aftermath of this crisis. 

We all agree that stress and trauma can lead to negative outcomes. But before dropping your head in despair, consider this: these same factors can just as easily lead to positive outcomes. It all depends on how we process and engage with what we've experienced. 

Now here’s the really great news: if you don't already possess these skills, all the research tells us that they can be learned.

Want to tap into your innate capacity to experience post-traumatic growth, or learn to help others do the same? Here’s what you need to know!

Stress and trauma are two different things

Many people believe that the term “Trauma” applies to a certain narrow set of experiences, such as war or abuse. The reality is that we all experience trauma of various kinds throughout our lives. 

Put another way, both trauma and stress are natural parts of being alive. Let’s take an example from the natural world to make the difference between the two clearer. When a tree is struck by lightning, that’s trauma. During the really dry season when a tree isn’t getting much water, that’s stress.

Now let’s dive into what it’s like for humans!

Stress

For people, stress can come in a variety of forms. Examples include: work demands, moving house, normal relationship strain, traffic, noise, or clutter. 

Everyday life comes with a certain amount of stress, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Just… stressful. It's the prolonged exposure to chronic stress that can take a heavy toll on our physical, emotional and psychological well being. 

Research suggests that stress can have a net positive impact when it's experienced in manageable, infrequent doses. The experience of overcoming non-chronic adversity as a part of our daily lives can equip us with what's known as “psychological preparedness”. 

Building resilience in this way becomes a form of stress immunity, which in turn allows us to show up stronger in future stressful situations. You may have noticed this when you find yourself navigating a challenge that you’ve faced in the past, only to discover it stresses you out way less the second time around.

Trauma

Trauma is something that occurs outside of the ordinary, creates lasting problems, and interrupts a person’s personal narrative. Examples of this might include: death, divorce, violent crime, and living through a pandemic.

With trauma, there is usually a sense of “before” and “after.”

The traumatic event doesn’t have to be contained to a single moment in time, though. Like what we’re experiencing with the pandemic, trauma can be perceived as a slow drip over a much longer period. Sometimes we don’t even recognize we’re in a traumatic chapter of our lives until we’re on the other side of it.

When trauma occurs, there are three potential outcomes:

  • Succumbing to the event (also known as PTSD)
  • Resilience and recovery
  • Post traumatic growth

(Note: The term “succumbing” is not a value judgment, and the occurance of PTSD is not a failing on the part of the individual. PTSD is simply one way that our system responds to trauma.)

Bottom line?

As we consider the impacts of stress and trauma, we have some very positive possible outcomes to hold up alongside the pain and unpleasantness of the past year:

  1. Stress immunity
  2. Increased resilience and post-traumatic growth

What’s post-traumatic growth? What does it look like?

Growth does not occur as a result of trauma. What stimulates growth is the way in which we respond to trauma.

So how do we recognize when we’re in the growth zone?

One easy way to tell is by taking a look at how we are feeling. 

Negative emotions are rapid and fast acting inside our system. Our mind naturally tends to give more weight to negative stimuli than positive. Scientists have even given this phenomenon a name: negativity bias.

In contrast, post-traumatic growth shows up inside our positive emotions. Positive feelings deliver a chemical cocktail to the brain that broads our thought and action skill sets, specifically the skills and behavior we regularly use. When we regularly experience positive emotions, our minds open up and we are able to think outside the box. This allows us to feel more optimistic in the face of a challenge, generate alternative solutions, and become more creative in our lives. (Barbara Fredrickson, Broaden-and-Build theory)

Positive outcomes are already starting to become recognizable to us as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.

Some signs of post-traumatic growth:

  • Increased appreciation of life
  • Feelings of increased personal strength
  • Improved interpersonal skills and relationships
  • Changing life priorities
  • Positive spiritual changes
  • Finding new meaning in life

How to tap into post-traumatic growth

Coming through the pandemic, we all share in this collective experience. In a very real sense, we can understand each other in ways that none of us have ever experienced before in our lifetimes. We can support each of in achieving positive outcomes by simply listening, and specifically listening without agenda.

Why storytelling matters

In the Handbook of Post Traumatic Growth, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun suggest that post-traumatic growth can best be facilitated by “expert companionship.” Such companions are folks who understand what the experience of trauma and its aftermath are like. These are traditionally trained professionals who can listen and respond appropriately to stories that can involve upset fear, guilt, shame, and confusion. 

Listening companions don’t “prescribe” growth. Instead, they facilitate the process of reclaiming one’s own narrative. They in essence help us to take the pieces of the puzzle of our traumatic experience, put them in order, and decide what meaning we wish to make of it. 

Reshaping our story involves a reconsideration of core beliefs. Finding order and meaning gets our neurons to fire and wire new pathways of connection. From there, new possibilities emerge.

To take these realizations and use them to experiment with new ways of living requires courage. Doing so also leads, ultimately, to post-traumatic growth.

We do not always need listening companions to do this work.

While it is theraputic and helpful to have a guide, it's absolutely possible to make meaning and activate a growth mindset within ourselves. We can experess our narrative experiences by reflecting, journaling, blogging or podcasting about the different ways our own story has changed as a result of our experiences.

How can life coaches support this process?

Coaching that’s grounded in positive psychology helps people cultivate an inner toolkit that’s rooted in personal strengths and capabilities. Through applied interventions, we help people reframe unhelpful beliefs and induce the positive emotions that lead to meaningful growth and change.

As life coaches, we’re not looking to deny pain, suffering, or trauma. Those are very real experiences, and deserve attention and healing-centered care. We can hold space, and bring tools that help our clients move from reacting to responding to their situation. 

Sometimes, though, the life circumstances and emotions that our clients are grappling with may exceed our coaching scope of practice. It’s important for us to know the differences between counselling, therapy, and life coaching, and recognize when it may be appropriate to refer out. Often clients will work with more than one practitioner when they want to both process what’s happened (therapy) while also taking action toward achieving a goal or desired future vision (coaching).

Further reading

For more on this topic, including how mindset, community, and cultivating social capital can contribute to collective post-traumatic growth, check out Noelle’s think piece: Is Pandemic Post-Traumatic Growth Possible? It Depends on What You Believe.

Want to help others grow?

Life coaches are professionally trained to hold space, ask powerful questions, and serve as trustworthy listening companions. If you're looking to further your own growth while also developing skills to better support others, come check out JRNI Life Coach Training! Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and fellow students dedicated to becoming a collective force for good in the world.

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