Re-Writing the Story for Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth

This is the fifth and last post in a series on recovering from challenging, even catastrophic events, healing into the resilience and strengths of post-traumatic growth.  [You can see previous posts here: Awareness and Acceptance of Reality, Resourcing with People, Resourcing with the Positive, Reframing toward Positive Meaning.

The Coherent Narrative is an exercise to help people rewrite the story of any trauma, or even a series of traumas, or even a lifetime of traumas, and thus, in a very real way, re-write their story of themselves.

Stephen Joseph, psychologist at the University of Nottingham, says:

The ability to abandon the old assumptive self or narrative and to develop a new one is at the heart of the process that can result in post-traumatic growth.  People are always telling themselves stories; it is how we make sense of the significance of what has happened to us.  In the wake of trauma, people are often telling themselves stories of mental defeat and hopelessness. And they need to be in a position to begin reframing their story, as one that looks to the future and begins to view things in a beneficial way

The coherent narrative tells a person’s life story that in a way that includes any trauma as part of the story, but the trauma is not the whole story. The coherent narrative helps people let go of stories that are not helpful, skillful, or resourceful, that keep people caught in the feelings or the beliefs about the trauma or because of the trauma, and helps them create a narrative of their life that integrates the trauma into the life story.

When a person can come to a new larger sense of identity and purpose that includes the trauma but is not entirely defined by the trauma, then the trauma can take its place in the story without determining the rest of the story.

Creating a coherent narrative is an important and big tool.  It may take someone long time to do this reflection and write the narrative.  It can be done many times.

I suggest you do this exercise in 3 phases:

1. Identify one event you want to work with.  For the sake of practice, I do strongly suggest this be an event that you already did cope with, processed and learned from. It’s in the past.  For the sake of practice, it’s important to work with something with not much risk of being re-triggered.  Work with some event that you can safely work with so you can get the benefit of the exercise.

2.  Reflect on these prompts and journal your reflections.  Take your time.  The journaling itself helps your brain process the experience.

This is what happened; these were the consequences.

Mindfulness and self-compassion can be so helpful here, to be able to come to an observer awareness and stance of acceptance and relate to the event somewhat objectively rather than being caught in the emotional turmoil of the trauma response.

These were the resources, practices, tools and coping strategies I used at the time.

An honest awareness and acceptance here, so no shame-blame.  Also recovering strengths and resources we did have at the time.

These are the resources, etc. I would use now if I could do this over.

Because there has been new growth and new learning. This step integrates that learning.

These were the lessons I learned, the growth I experienced, the positive meanings I found.

The silver lining, the gift in the mistake, the teachable moment, whatever has redemptive value looking back on the entire experience of event and recovery from event. Taking time with this because this IS the turning point of post-traumatic growth. And this is the step that can be reflected on again and again.

This is what I now appreciate because of the event.

Post-traumatic growth is more than coping, it is learning, redeeming, thriving.  This step make take some time also.  But it is the hallmark of fully recovering from trauma.

3) Take a few moments to just sit and reflect on your reflections. No right or wrong answers, maybe even no answers at all. Just using your memory, imagination, intuition to make sense of what happened, and to claim your strengths as someone did cope, can learn to cope, can be fully resilient in the face of the next disaster.