Post-traumatic growth is real: Facing your own suffering helps you pursue wholeness

Last year I had a consultation was a woman who had recently been diagnosed with MS. She had spent much of her life teaching young children but when she was diagnosed, she felt great anxiety and shame about her physical changes. She was advised by her doctors not to tell anyone has she might get pity or people might be too focused on her illness and not who she was.

So for months after she was diagnosed, she kept it a secret only shared with her husband and adult children.
The funny thing is that this very social and outgoing woman was becoming withdrawn and didn’t want to go out with friends. She told me the only time she felt safe was when she was with the children because if she dropped something or lost her balance, or had to sit down, she knew the children would either not notice or understand. She felt safe with the kids and not so with the grown ups fearing she would be judged.

I told her the doctors position made sense for some people, but not for her. And in general, the more we hide the more we carry. That can work for some people, but personally I don’t have the strength to carry more stuff than I already carry! I advised her to do the opposite and to be open with people.

She was also afraid that she would be completely self-absorbed for the rest of her life and wouldn’t go back to being that smiling social person that really enjoyed her life. I told her not to worry as with very few exceptions, most people following loss or trauma go back to baseline.

When I saw her a few months later, she was absolutely radiant! She said that she had been telling people and received a wonderful caring response. She felt as though she regained her place in the world and she was relieved and delighted!

She said that on an emotional and spiritual level, she felt better than she had in 10 years if not longer. And then I told her what I hadn’t told her in our initial contact; that the large percentage of people who experience trauma report what they call “posttraumatic growth”. They say they are better people and even happier than they were before the trauma.

That’s not to say they/we don’t have great adversity-and sometimes every day. And many of us experience both PTSD and posttraumatic growth. You see, it is the nature of the human spirit to pursue wholeness. Nothing magical, just letting go of what was and wishing for what could be or should be. Many report that they have more compassion and gratitude after trauma. It doesn’t come quickly and it certainly doesn’t come painlessly.

But like everyone else, if we can open our hearts to our own experience and face our suffering and joy with kindness, things should work out pretty well!!

2 Comments on Post-traumatic growth is real: Facing your own suffering helps you pursue wholeness

  1. Dr. Dan, I agree with your perspective wholeheartedly, and I went through the same growth process after a car accident 19 years ago left me with both spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. One thing that helped me regain my perspective and my contentedness with my life was when I heard you speak at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown a year after I “graduated” from Good Shepherd. I remember so clearly you saying that ultimately such traumas and injuries were liberating because it took so much energy to just “be” that there wasn’t enough left over to try to hide or be something you were not. I’m not sure in my sadness that I believed you at the time, but I certainly do now, and your insight helped me to find (or maybe rebuild) my wholeness and happiness. Thank you for sharing your experiences and helping me heal.

  2. Grateful for your continued effort, passion and dedication Dan. So many people stand to benefit.

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