There’s a lot of weight that we’ve put behind the term “trauma” as a society. But as always, it’s a word that will never live up to the idea it attempts to define. The concept of trauma stems from our own concrete experiences, which makes it just that much more difficult to treat it as a generalized notion, as a word inherently does to a concept. If healing from trauma was like curing a disease, where the right cocktail of prescriptions could return us back to who we were before, its leadning would be stripped entirely. The most defining, and simultaneously frustrating, character of this word is that it’s a remnant of something real. It’s not a certain instance or feeling, but these rather parasitic bits and pieces of our consciousness at a moment in time that involuntarily linger with us, immortalizing the experience within us. In short, its most damning, yet inherent, quality is that it stays.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “It is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget or, expressed in more scholarly fashion, the capacity to feel unhistorically during its duration.” For a man who famously rejected religion and eventually lost all control of his mental faculties by the age of 45, Nietzsche held an unorthodox view of meaning, differing significantly from the piety of his time. He posited that the existence of a cow should be enviable to us humans — a creature that bears a blissful existence unburdened by the murky tint of the pain and infestation in the past. For us to move forward, he theorized that we conquer one of our seemingly uncontrollable actions: the act of forgetting. He introduced the idea that by actively abandoning the selective past events that taint our present mindset, the conscious suffering we experience in our past merely opens a vacancy in our soul that we can then fill with joy.
PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, has long been researched and understood as a tangible outcome of any traumatic event. It is a valid assumption that painful experiences will inevitably lead to more pain. But this isn’t a guaranteed case. Oftentimes, people have found that they actually gain strength and positivity after these dark experiences.
First introduced in the 1990s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, the notion of positive change within us following extreme adversity — a sort of light at the end of the tunnel — has found its way into modern psychological studies since its roots as a mere philosophical analogy. Tedeschi and Calhoun reframed the idea of trauma as a device to encourage positive life changes, as they coined it. More than just being resilient, post-traumatic growth follows a psychological struggle and leads to positive attributes within us that weren’t necessarily there before.
Dr. Mari Kira, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, further expanded on this idea of positive growth following trauma. According to Kira, “The trauma itself does not lead to growth, but our process of struggling through it and rebuilding those shattered assumptions of the world and our understanding of our own place in the world can result in long-term psychological growth.” This growth can encompass many dimensions of our mental health, and Kira’s research has demonstrated much of this phenomenon. “Issues like strength and understanding of ourself, appreciation of life … stronger and healthier relationships with people close to us, and sometimes there is also a renewed sense of spiritual understanding of the meaning of life,” Kira continued, establishing the marked positive changes that occur after traumatic experiences.
In particular, singular, damaging instances of trauma have a profoundly destabilizing effect on our grip on our inner selves and on the world. Embedding itself into the deepest recesses of our unconscious minds, the crater of destruction that trauma leaves on our inner psyche tends to have an almost paradoxical effect, serving to both protect and harm it. Renowned psychologists such as Carl Jung argued that traumatic experiences are like diseases or poisons on the most precious parts of our soul. These parts further recede and bury themselves deep in our unconscious character, only to be expressed outwardly in unintentional ways. Trauma breaks the bone we have with the physical world, forcing an all-out retreat to the safer parts of our psyche.
Post-traumatic growth serves to reconnect this dissociation that takes place as we lose this sense of what we perceive as “normal” within ourselves and others. According to Dr. Kira, “We are amazing psychological machines in that we try to make sense of what is going on and that process of … trying to figure out what happened and understanding in your own head but also the social process of relating to others and learning from others are both really important for growth outcomes to emerge.”
Ultimately, there is no straightforward answer or line of reasoning that can undo or “fix” the effects that trauma can have on us. The important idea that the mere, scientifically-backed existence of post-traumatic growth serves to show is that it truly is possible to achieve a sense of fulfillment and happiness from life even after all of the suffering of trauma. Living in a time of such unexpected changes and hardships, from pandemics to worldwide tension to economic stress, as a society we have been left to deal with the aftermath in our own lives. Recognizing the possibility of lingering pain from our difficult experiences doesn’t necessarily mean we are doomed to a lifetime of its wrath. Instead, it can warrant us a chance to enhance and better ourselves — and although it is a natural process, we can help facilitate it.
As mentioned earlier, simply educating yourself on this topic will naturally lead to this subconscious alignment and expectation towards it. This can help with manually orienting ourselves towards a better understanding and mindset against our trauma. Confidence in the fact that we can emerge from hardships in one piece, or even better than before, can help stimulate post-traumatic growth. In addition, making efforts to be closer to the loved one, or just finding a consistent source of support can also help spur an influx of positivity after traumatic events. As it’s been established, this natural progression that our mind takes towards healing itself is something that we can all take comfort in. No matter the cards we have been dealt and the hardships we have gone through, we are meant to persevere.
Sreelakshmi Panicker is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.