Trauma is part of life’s experience and as such can have both positive and negative consequences. The negative results of trauma are well documented. The positive outcomes and long-term beneficial effects are not often discussed.
Search for Meaning
Processing trauma takes much longer than everyday experiences partly because of the need to give the experience meaning. Research shows that those who can bring a sense of meaning to the event are more likely to recover and thrive. Therapists can help with this process.
Change of Perspective
In the early days and weeks many people feel separate and cut off from others - they are now living in a different, less safe and predictable world. Their perspective on life has changed dramatically. This alienation from normality can be difficult to deal with. Survivors report feeling annoyed at others’ preoccupation with comparative trivia.
Some people report seeing ‘their life flash before their eyes’, during the experience. Even if this doesn’t happen, experiencing and surviving a major trauma challenges presumptions about reality and changes how life is viewed. This change of perspective can lead people to question what they have achieved and to resolving to make their lives ‘count’ for more.
Life is Precious
A common outcome is an increased sense of life as precious. No longer taking life for granted: waking up and thinking “I’m glad I’m alive!” In my experience, this attitude of ‘thanksgiving’ is a great precursor to good things happening.
Trauma as a motivator
Another common result after a trauma is ‘getting our house in order’ - sorting out relationships, jobs or whatever gets in the way of living a full and satisfying life and being who we really are. “If not now, when?” seems to be the motto, rather than “I really should do something about that one day”. Changes in career are common in the months following a trauma. People want to take control of their lives and make changes so that their lives have more meaning. Many experience an increased capacity to think deeply, to question the meaning of things, living in a more principled and value-driven way.
“. . .has really helped both my wife and I turn our experience into positive energy.”Nick (plane crash)
Added depth in relationships
Also common are changes in the way people relate to those close to them. If today may be your last, what have you left unsaid? Many survivors become more open and honest about their feelings for those close to them. They have more empathy and compassion; are often more sensitive and intuitive. Some become more creative, maybe from a greater need to express themselves and make their ‘mark’ on the world.
Discovering the ‘Hero-part’
Some people in a traumatic situation are able to channel the adrenaline and continue to function rationally. They can think logically, scan for solutions and evaluate likely outcomes from various actions. They are able to think of others and help others, sometimes heroically and at risk to themselves. This ‘hero-part’ gives a sense of control at the time of the trauma; one of the things which helps prevent Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). Discovery of this part can be a revelation and provide an insight into who they are - their identity, which will change the way they see themselves for ever. This part needs to be acknowledged, celebrated and welcomed.
We have all watched countless films, read books and identified with the hero. For women, how annoying is it when the woman in the story who we identify with becomes a gibbering wreck when faced with a life threatening situation? As a therapist, I so admire the hero in those I work with and would dearly like to think that I have a ‘hero-part’ just waiting to be discovered. In reality, I have a creeping suspicion that in a major crisis, I do ‘frozen rabbit’. If you too dissociate in traumatic situations rather than finding a ‘hero-within’, you can console yourself with the fact that in a trauma, our primitive ’survival’ brain takes over. We do not have a choice about how we react; the hero-part is there or not. We do what we do because it means we, and our children are more likely to survive. Heroes always make it in the films, but maybe not in real life. Our ‘parts’ which ‘kick in’ in a trauma are doing the best they can to help us to survive
The business of living does have risks. Studies of the way people respond in life-threatening situations show that those with some sort of plan, however basic are more likely to survive. One outcome from many traumas is an increased awareness of risk and better strategies for dealing with a crisis. This may be taking practical steps, such as knowing exit routes, contingency planning, choosing the safest seats on transport, or having a more flexible birth plan, etc.
We cannot guarantee and probably would not want a life devoid of risk, but with a little thought, some risks can be managed.
If we look back on our lives and see a major positive turning point and life-enhancing changes prompted by a traumatic experience, was the trauma a bad thing? We can all benefit from an occasional re-assessment of our priorities and enhanced meaning in our lives.
Joe lives on the coast in Southsea. With a background in managing charities and community development, she now works as a counsellor / NLP therapist with NHS staff and private clients. She has a Diploma in Counselling and is BACP Accredited and is also an NLP Master Practitioner.