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The journey to healing and personal growth after experiencing trauma can be challenging and complex. However, with the right tools and support, it is possible to heal your internal experience and create a sense of safety and wisdom from within. In this article, we explore the concept of post-traumatic growth, how it is connected to the nervous system, and various strategies to cultivate resilience and healing from within.
Understanding Post-Traumatic Growth
Post-traumatic growth is a term coined by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the 1990s. It refers to the positive psychological changes one may experience after a challenging or traumatic event. These changes can include increased self-awareness, greater appreciation for life, stronger relationships, new interests or passions, and even a deeper spiritual connection.
Dr. Arielle Schwartz, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook, emphasizes that resilience is not an innate trait but rather a set of strategies that can be learned and practiced. By cultivating resilience, individuals can foster post-traumatic growth and develop wisdom and safety within themselves.
The Role of the Nervous System in Trauma and Healing
The experience of trauma affects both the mind and the body. The sympathetic nervous system, which controls our “fight, flight, freeze, and fawn” response, kicks into high gear when we are exposed to a traumatic event. Simultaneously, the parasympathetic nervous system allows us to shut down when we feel unsafe. As a result, it is common to experience physical symptoms such as muscle tension and fatigue, as well as psychological symptoms like anxiety, dissociation, and fear.
To heal from trauma and foster post-traumatic growth, it is crucial to address the nervous system’s role in recovery. By understanding how the nervous system reacts to trauma, individuals can learn to regulate their responses and create a sense of safety from within.
Strategies for Healing Your Nervous System and Cultivating Post-Traumatic Growth
1. Orienting to Your Strengths
Focusing on your strengths and accomplishments can help build resilience and provide a sense of stability during the healing process. Reflect on your past achievements, the challenges you have overcome, and the skills you have developed. This practice can help shift your perspective from what is not working in your life to what is going well, empowering you to move forward with confidence and find a sense of control in your life experience.
2. Attending to Your Pain
While it may be tempting to avoid or suppress painful emotions and memories, attending to your pain is an essential part of the healing process. This does not mean overwhelming yourself with distressing thoughts or feelings; instead, it involves gently confronting your pain and giving yourself space to process your pain and validate your emotions.
One helpful strategy is to use visualization exercises, such as creating a “container” for overwhelming emotions and memories. You might imagine a bookshelf in the back of your mind, on which there is a box where you can store distressing memories and overwhelming emotions until you have the emotional capacity to process these emotions. By placing these difficult experiences into a safe space, you can gradually address them without feeling overwhelmed or unsafe in your daily life.
3. Taking Charge of Your Narrative
Taking control of the story that defines your life is a powerful way to facilitate post-traumatic growth. This process involves reframing your understanding of your experiences and deciding how you want to move forward as a way of finding your own control. By exploring your values and beliefs surrounding your life experience, you can create a new narrative that is empowering and reflects your authentic self.
4. Grounding Exercises
Grounding exercises can help you feel connected to your body and the present moment, creating a sense of safety and stability. These exercises can include lying down and focusing on the points of contact between your body and the floor, engaging with nature, or practicing mindful breathing.
For those with relational trauma, relational grounding exercises can also be beneficial. These exercises involve being present and attuned with another person, exploring what it feels like to be supported and safe in a relationship.
5. Cultivate Self-Compassion
Developing self-compassion is crucial for healing from trauma and fostering post-traumatic growth. This involves treating yourself with kindness, understanding, and empathy, even when faced with challenges or setbacks. By cultivating self-compassion, you can develop a more positive and nurturing relationship with yourself, which can support your overall well-being and growth.
6. Seek Professional Support
Working with a therapist or counselor can be invaluable in the healing process. A skilled professional can provide guidance, support, and evidence-based strategies to help you navigate the complexities of trauma and foster post-traumatic growth.
7. Engage in Meaningful Activities
Pursuing activities that align with your values, passions, and interests can help you find a sense of purpose and meaning in life, which can contribute to post-traumatic growth. This may include volunteering, engaging in creative pursuits, or connecting with others who share your interests.
8. Foster Social Connections
Strong social connections are essential for emotional well-being and post-traumatic growth. By building a support network of trusted friends, family members, or peers, you can create a sense of belonging and safety, which can help you navigate the healing process.
9. Develop a Spiritual Practice
For many individuals, exploring spirituality can provide a sense of comfort, meaning, and connection that supports post-traumatic growth. This may involve engaging in mindfulness practices, prayer, meditation, or connecting with a spiritual community.
10. Embrace Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence
Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization involves fulfilling your potential and becoming your authentic self. By embracing self-actualization, you can integrate your experiences, including your trauma, and develop a coherent and empowered sense of self.
Additionally, Maslow identified self-transcendence as the process of going beyond the individual self to serve a cause larger than oneself. This can involve contributing to social justice, environmental, or political causes, or focusing on the well-being of others. By engaging in self-transcendence, individuals can develop a deeper connection to the world and foster post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic growth is a powerful concept that highlights the potential for healing and personal development after experiencing trauma. By understanding the role of the nervous system in trauma and recovery, and implementing strategies to cultivate resilience and healing, individuals can create a sense of wisdom and safety from within. With the right tools and support, it is possible to not only recover from trauma but also thrive and become a stronger, more compassionate version of oneself.