Imagine for a moment that you are twenty-two years old, your entire life in front of you…and you’re headed for combat. Maybe that’s not hard to imagine. You’ve been that kid headed off to war, scared out of your mind, not knowing what lies ahead. Most of us haven’t and we salute you for your service.
Before you go, you meet with a psychologist. It’s normal to do so. Their job is to prepare you for the horrors you’re about to face and, eventually, the return home. The psychologist tells you that when you return, there are only two options:
1. Return “normal.”
2. Return with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
This well-intentioned psychologist has pigeon-holed this impressionable kid into forming only two paths in his mental map, average and bad.
We do the same things to ourselves.
Maybe you go through a divorce and figure that your kids will turn out one of two ways: OK and generally unaffected or they will rebel and be just like the millions of other statistics.
Or you face an unexpected and devastating job loss and can’t even imagine finding a better one. Your two options are “just get back on our feet” or live off the government.
Like millions of men and women every year, you are diagnosed with cancer. “Normalcy” no longer seems possible. You can hardly keep count of the scars this is going to leave, physically and emotionally.
But what about the third option?
There is a third road on our mental map. It’s a road that requires us to use our imagination and ignore our negative voices, though. (Ironically, the worst-case scenario also requires us to use our imagination. “Normal” is easy to picture. We’ve lived it. Viewing ourselves as possibly having PTSD, though, requires us to visualize something that is not yet reality.)
That third road is called:
I’d never heard of this term until recently. Odds are, neither have you.
The reason for that is that while we’ve instinctively known difficult circumstances can lead to personal growth, we’ve only recently been able to prove it scientifically. Only in the past twenty-five years have psychologists like Richard Tedeschi systematically proven that an intense struggle, challenge, or life-altering difficulty can lead to positive change. Prior to his studies, which only began in the 1980’s, we relied entirely on anecdotal evidence (“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Just look at my friend Joe or that famous person in the movies.)
What can trauma do for us?
Tedeschi’s research shows that traumatic events or struggles often lead to:
- Increased spirituality
- Closer relationships
- Greater openness with others
- More compassion for others
- Greater confidence
- Increase in personal strength
In other words, life is better. Instead of just using the setback as a setup for a comeback, they use it as a catalyst to propel forward.
But not everyone reacts this way. Why?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a real thing. Personally, I cannot even imagine the horrors of seeing a friend’s body blown to pieces, dealing with the pain to my own body from an explosion, or knowing that something I did was responsible for killing civilians. And while, I cannot put myself in their shoes or the shoes of a cancer patient, I do know struggle. And I know both responses, good and bad. I’ve done both.
So what separates those who grow from those who only wish for a return to normal?
In a word: Mindset.
There are four steps to using difficulties for growth rather than a lifetime of misery.
The 4 Steps to Post Traumatic Growth
Growth comes from the same place that negativity, helplessness, and quitting come from: How we interpret what happened to us. I touched on this before when I explained how to change your counterfacts.
Is this a positive or a negative event? This is the part that requires the right kind of imagination. Your mind will take you down one of three roads if you let it. It’s up to you to steer it.
I highly suggest you read this post for more on the subject.
2. Tackling the problem head on
The second factor they found in those who grew from trauma was that they tackle the problem head on. They didn’t deny the problem. They didn’t minimize it. They didn’t avoid it.
They identified the problem and did everything they could to address it.
3. They sought help
Often, the biggest part of tackling it head on is seeking help from others. Those who overcame life-altering problems weren’t the ones who holed themselves up in a room and battled it alone. They had a team.
You’ll need everyone you can get. God, family, friends, mentors, and spiritual leaders. Rally a team around you, lean on them when you need to cry. Allow them to encourage you and support you.
Studies show that there is a direct correlation between recovery/growth from a setback and the quantity and quality of their relationships.
4. Optimism for the future
This is another area that requires imagination. You’ve identified the positive that can come out of the event, you’ve tackled it head on, and you’ve got a great support team in place. Good.
Now…it’s time to look to the future in a positive light. The job loss will get you out of your comfort zone so you can finally start that business you’ve dreamed about. The cancer led to your children moving closer. Now you get years to play with your grandkids. After the divorce, you and your kids are going to grow even closer together. Picture what those things look like. Smile.
You may never know the horrors of war, but life can feel like it sometimes. You will be set back at times.
But you will choose to grow. When life punches you in the throat, follow these four steps…and that third road will lead to a beautiful place.
How have you grown as the result of a trauma?