Thriving After a Loss or Trauma
by Amy Vigliotti, Ph.D
Trauma comes in many forms: as illness, bereavement, divorce, infertility, abuse and natural disasters. I have also seen more subtle forms of trauma in people involved in lengthy, intrusive court cases; those feeling threatened with a great personal or professional loss; or for caregivers and healthcare professionals who daily witness the immensity of human suffering. One thing I’ve learned in my years as a psychologist is we all have a tremendous capacity for resilience. Patients, or “Thrivers” as I like to call them, repeatedly astound me with the ways they flourish after terrible life circumstances. Thrivers often endorse a deeper spiritual connection, appreciation of family and friends, discovery of personal strengths and reprioritization of commitments. While we often can’t prevent setbacks, there are a number of things to get you on the path to thriving.
Understand normal responses to trauma
Trauma occurs when you become so overwhelmed by an event or imagined event that you are left feeling vulnerable, weak, and unsafe. It is common to question your purpose in life and feel inadequate and negative in the weeks and months following. The shattering of beliefs about yourself, others and the future is a normal response to trauma and does not indicate a psychological disorder or weakness in your character.
Reduce negative thinking
We all have thoughts sometimes that either aren’t true or make us feel worse about our current situation. You might engage in “catastrophic thinking,” imagining the worst-case scenario. To challenge catastrophic thinking, ask yourself what evidence supports this outcome, use optimism, and put the situation in perspective. Another common thought pattern is all-or-nothing thinking; for example, you get negative feedback on a performance review and then imagine all your colleagues judge you negatively. Exercise, relaxation, hobbies, creative tasks, talking with others, and work can all help reduce negativity and/or anxiety after a trauma. A daily mindfulness meditation practice can also promote calm and reduce stress.
Disclose to others
All of us need trusted people in our lives, to validate our feelings and foster new understandings, especially when circumstances feel incomprehensible. Bottling up trauma can lead to physical and psychological distress. Individuals who suppress their emotions tend to express less positivity and experience greater negative emotion. Part of the healing process is the constructive disclosure of personal experiences with those you trust.
Form a trauma narrative
Putting a traumatic event into words helps you cope, express mixed emotions, and organize a chaotic time in your life. Narratives can be shared through talks with family and friends, journaling, blogging, public speaking, support groups, individual therapy, and volunteering. By sharing your story, you regain control and decrease the trauma’s emotional impact. Mental health professionals can share in the co-creation of your narrative and help you see the multiple paradoxes within trauma. Where there is vulnerability, there is strength; where there is grief, there is gratitude; and where there are losses, there are gains.
Strengthen life principles and values
Strengthening the values that are important to you facilitates a stronger identity and opens new pathways for growth. Bolstering skills like proactivity, outreach, mentorship, and artistic expression can be critical to the thriving response. Thrivers show renewed faith, closer relationships, leadership skills, mental strengths, and increased productivity. Rather than feeling locked in a repetitive state or pain reduction efforts, Thrivers seek out meaning and purpose. You know you have become a Thriver when you have reached an acceptance of your trauma and a new sense of calm and happiness.