How to Find Meaning From Hardship: Post-Traumatic Growth and Resilience

How can we find meaning in hardship? Sometimes the beginning of a better life starts at the end of a dark road. Jennifer K. shared with Heroes in Recovery that her recovery story began at her lowest point:

“I knew I needed help when someone once asked me what I enjoy doing and I literally could not respond. My brain searched for an answer, but there were no words, descriptions, or memories. In that moment, I felt empty, blank, and unsure if I would ever recover. It became clear to me how entirely disconnected I was from my passions — those essential things both big and small that ring true with who I am at my core.”1

In that dark time, her focus centered on her disorder and the work she had to do to survive. Gradually she began to be set free to discover and rediscover things that brought her life meaning and joy. Today Jennifer tells about the depth her life has reached and the growth she has enjoyed as a person over 20 years on a “path of healing,” which is what she calls her recovery journey now. She describes the difference recovery has made in her life:

“Going to treatment resuscitated my heart, soul, mind and body. Now, several years later, I am whole for myself and my family. I have since trained to be a yoga therapist and now support others on their healing paths. I have transformed my pain into purpose, and my work fills me with immense and profound joy.”1

Is Optimism a Key to Growth During Suffering?

She’s not alone in feeling that going through difficulties has strengthened her as a person, parent and professional. Many who have experienced traumatic hardships also end up becoming a role model and helper for others in similar situations. Often a person’s optimistic view of the future was the key to staying in recovery and discovering the kind of healing and spiritual insight Jennifer found on her path. As they progressed through the difficulties of healing, some recall a positive picture of the future growing in their imagination. Psychologist and researcher Kasey Killiam writes about how the trauma of tragic events can lead to personal growth in her article for Scientific American:

“Tragedy exposes our vulnerability in an unpredictable world and therefore may cause us to feel weak or helpless. But, paradoxically, it can also boost our self-confidence and lead us to view ourselves as stronger. For instance, a car crash survivor reported that the incident motivated her to take charge of her life with greater determination and willpower. People may feel empowered by realizing that overcoming a past challenge means they will be able to overcome future challenges.”2

Gaining wisdom from getting through traumatic incidents can help us feel better prepared to deal with trouble that comes our way in the future. It can also help us focus on living life in a more meaningful way in the present. By choosing enriching activities and ways to be more productive with our time and talents, we can rediscover joy.3 Trying something new or actually doing the thing we have always wanted to do can break us out of our rut and chase away depressed feelings. This can open doors to new people who share our interests. It’s always easier to make friends when you are asking for their expert advice or sharing some work together on a project.4

What is Post-Traumatic Growth?

Author Jim Rendon wrote a book about people who have found meaning in difficult times titled Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth. He interviewed soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and individuals who suffered other trauma and tragedy. In many cases people told him the hard times had helped them grow or become a better person in the long run. He cautioned that no one would wish hardship on themselves or others, but after surviving a traumatic experience and walking through the recovery process, many realized it had changed them in positive ways. In a New York Times article, Rendon reported on a program to help post-trauma army veterans develop resilience. One dynamic he discovered was that telling the story of their survival and the wisdom gained after recovering helped the teller bring things into perspective.5

The concept of post-traumatic growth was developed by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, psychologists at the University of North Carolina. They researched the idea by first interviewing people who survived severe injuries, then they questioned people whose spouses had passed away. They identified five types of growth after trauma recovery: a renewed appreciation for life, discovery of new possibilities, a feeling of more strength, improved relationships and a sense of being more satisfied spiritually. Many connected to a higher power spiritually for the first time or returned to faith with greater understanding. They also concluded that creative expression through the arts or journaling can play a part and encourage “deliberate rumination” or thinking about how the trauma has changed one’s life path.5

Rendon writes about the interviews he did in his book and how they changed his own outlook as he spoke with people: “What an exceptional person, I think. And then I remember all of the others who have told me similar stories. This kind of miraculous transformation, it turns out, is hardly unusual. The potential for such inspiring change lives inside most people.”6


Sources

1 Jennifer K. “The Healing of Recovery.” Heroes in Recovery, March 27, 2018.

2 Killam, Kasley. “How to Find Meaning in Suffering: Useful insights from research on ‘post-traumatic growth’.” Scientific American, December 15, 2015.

3 Davis, Tchiki, PhD. “7 Ways to Make Meaning from Hardship: How to turn your negative experiences into meaning-making-moments.” Psychology Today, June 6, 2018.

4 Ryan, Olivia. “Going Through Hardships? Here Are 6 Ways To Find New Meaning Of Life.” Finer Minds, 2018.

5 Rendon, Jim. “Post-Traumatic Stress’s Surprisingly Positive Flip Side.” The New York Times, March 22, 2012.

6 Dembling, Sophia. ”Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth.” Psych Central, Accessed June 22, 2018.

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