Resourcing with the Positive for Post-Traumatic Growth

This is the third in a five-week series exploring the five factors that support people in moving through and beyond coping with the hiccups and hurricanes of their lives to new wisdom, purpose, and thriving.  [See the first factor: Awareness and Acceptance of Reality here. See the second factor: Resourcing with People here.

This week focuses on the third of the five factors: resourcing with the positive even in the midst of overwhelming difficulties, first to simply find respite and to re-group, then over time to gradually find any possible silver lining in the process of recovering from even a true disaster.

It may seem completely counter-intuitive at first to try to find positive moments in the midst of a catastrophe, and we certainly don’t do that to avoid being with and having compassion for our fear, our grief, the agony of the experience.  There is a legitimate suffering in the struggle with trauma.

But finding moments of respite – in a warm cup of coffee, in the smile of a friend, in playing with a puppy, enjoying however briefly a sunny blue sky, the sound of a bird, a card from a friend, a walk in a park – these moments are an effective way to shift the functioning of the brain out of contraction, reactivity and rumination, into possibilities and a larger perspective.  A temporary respite from unbearable uncertainty, fear, grief.  Finding a space to breathe and re-group in the midst of a very difficult effort. 

When thoughts, feelings, and sensations begin to seem unworkable, one particular tool that is invaluable and often undervalued is that of skillful distraction – being able to shift the focus of attention, switch the channel, not distracting into denial or dissociation, but to take a time out. Watch a favorite TV show, or cook a good meal, or work out at the gym.

Skillful distraction IS a skill, and when we are mindful, wisely discerning whether indeed we are creating a refuge or going into denial, we are using that time of refuge to re-settle our molecules, to re-group and re-emerge to fight the good fight again. In a moment of skillful distraction, we can shift our focus of attention and our physical energy – do something different, move in a different way, and when we feel settled and grounded again, then we can return to exploring our difficult feelings or memories.

One tried and true way to bring the brain and the sense of self out of contraction, reactivity, and the negativity bias of brain, which a traumatizing event may have triggered big time, is to practice   gratitude.  Gratitude is one of the most reliable ways to get the brain to shift to a more open, receptive perspective.

Of course we can journal or share with a gratitude buddy anything we are grateful for – the neighbor who brought over a casserole when we couldn’t get out of bed, the friend who took our kids to school the next day when we still couldn’t get out of bed, the friend who watched a DVD with us when we still couldn’t get out of bed.

Then we can expand this gratitude practice to begin to identify any silver lining we ever found in any  past event that triggered a trauma response in us at the time.  We practice going back now in our reflections and finding one something in the event, one positive re-frame of a negative that we can see in the event in retrospect, or in the recovery from the event, to be grateful for.

Again, this is not to be pie in the sky or Pollyana, never to minimize or push away the real misery and confusion or impact of the trauma event.  We are aware, we accept, we are resourcing.  But the new meaning, new purpose, that is the hallmark of post-traumatic growth may hinge on our developing our capacity to find the gift in the mistake, turning a regrettable moment into a teachable moment, as the neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer said in his book Imagine.  Beginning to find the positive meaning in the negative event.

I do this exercise first as a written reflection. Writing one or two sentences about the event; that’s all; most of your writing will be on what you learned from the event or from recovering from the event.  How you changed because of it.  What the silver lining of the event was or the process of recovering from the event was.

But then it can also be very helpful to ask other people to share with you and others in small groups of 2 or 3 or 4: 3-4 minutes; everyone sharing what the learning, what the gift was.  Then going around the circle again sharing what it was like to share your process in this journey of recovery from trauma to post-traumatic growth.

Discovering the positive, sharing the positive, claiming your ability to re-frame some negative into a positive, brings you that much closer to the healing wisdom of post-traumatic growth.