In one of my earlier blog post I wrote about transgenerational trauma:
“Three generations removed from Holocaust survivors…I have lived my whole life with a sense of pain and grief for family members long gone, most of whom I never met. To this day, I carry a chronic sense of personal vulnerability to a repeat of trauma now several generations old. I am sometimes surprised by - and envious of - those who move about with a sense of freedom and safety in the world”.
A Child’s Search For Meaning
As a child and teenager, I was intrigued by certain people’s ability to cope. As a Jew growing up in Israel, the Holocaust was a pervasive memory, at once both close and distant. I wondered how people were able to move beyond such terrible life experiences. Only much later did I realize that what impressed me was what we now call resiliency and post traumatic growth.
My own life experience increased my interest. I was looking for refuge anywhere, and finally discovered a wonderful resource in books. I read any book I could lay my hands on – poetry, fiction and especially biographies and autobiographies of Holocaust survivors. I wanted to understand what they had gone through and hoped that their courage might rub off on me. I knew that my experiences couldn’t be compared to those of Holocaust survivors but I thought that if they could find meaning in life, so could I.
In the hardest part of my social aloneness in at a young age I read Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl’s book deeply impacted me with the importance of finding meaning after trauma.
Ongoing Contracts With God
That year, I volunteered as a tutor with a beautiful little boy who suffered from a genetic disorder. He was eight years old, with a normal size head and a body the size of a one year old. He was smart and funny and I loved him. He so much wanted to live but he knew that his lungs would not be able to support him much longer. I too deeply wanted him to live, but two and a half years later he died. His death added to a long list of loved ones I had experienced as taken away.
I started writing, journaling, and writing poetry. I conversed with God over and over again. I made all kinds of contracts – I will do this and this, if only that will be allowed to happen, most of the time I lost my deals.
What I didn’t know at that time, because it was too difficult and painful to see that anything good could ever result, was that I was accumulating my own basket of experiences in resiliency and post traumatic growth.
Definitions of Resilience and Post Traumatic Growth
Often resilience refers to the "capacity to cope, adapt, and maintain psychological and physical performance following a traumatic event” (Scali et al., 2012).
Many people who have experienced trauma also make changes in the way they live, reflecting a change in values or priorities due to insights acquired in their struggle with trauma. This is Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) a concept that was defined by Tedeschi and Calhoun. PTG does not necessarily diminish the pain, but it becomes a way to cope with the immense pain and suffering people face post-trauma” (Gertel Kraybill, 2015).
Tedeschi and Calhoun (2004) list five post-trauma outcomes that indicate PTG has taken place:
1. Improved and new relationships.
2. New possibilities, previously unavailable, become available.
3. Greater appreciation of life.
4. Better sense of personal strength.
5. Spiritual development.
I have come to view the term “trauma healing” as misleading and disillusioning. I prefer to see the goal as trauma integration with psychoeducation, experiential methods and indevidualized sustainability plan (ISP) at the core as methods of enhancing resiliency and supporting PTG.
PTSD and PTG Coexist
In the most extended longitudinal study ever conducted on PTG, Dekel, Mandl, and Solomon (2010) made important observations regarding PTG in their study of 103 former Israeli prisoners of war whom they followed for over 30 years.
About 23% of the participants suffered from PTSD, yet 99% reported PTG and 78% reported more-than-moderate positive changes. Trying to explain this remarkably high incidence of PTG, the authors found that PTG had little to do with pre-traumatic or personality factors.
This suggests that anyone can experience PTG in the aftermath of trauma.
A substantial number of the subjects in this study experienced both PTSD and PTG co-existing at the same time. The authors suggested that PTSD and PTG might appropriately be considered as differing facets of one overarching construct that could be called a psychological trauma reaction (p. 249).
This gives evidence that, alongside suffering and perhaps overshadowed by it in conscious awareness, many trauma survivors are also undergoing expansion of inner resources. Connecting this to my own framework for understanding trauma: immediately after the traumatic event/s, fear and pain activate a “withdrawal” stage, an instinctive, life-giving response to escape threat of further harm. This stage may last a long time - for some people the remainder of their lives.
However, for a large portion of trauma survivors – most, I believe - something important also takes place in the Withdrawal stage. Resources begin to emerge alongside the trauma, often without the survivor being fully aware. As survivors become aware of these resources and their own emotional responses to them, they begin to move, even if only for brief periods, into the next stage of integration, which I call “Awareness”.
Much vacillation takes place in the early parts of this stage. Awareness of pain dominates as the stage begins. Moments of expansion are fleeting. However, the conscious experience of even one moment of expansion is sufficient, in my view, to consider the journey of integration to now have moved to the Awareness stage.
Awareness is a stage where people realize the full - even contradictory - complexity of the life they now live. Changes take place in the withdrawal stage that prepare survivors for possible integration but, in my understanding, Awareness begins when people are able to consciously experience and articulate both the pain of the past and an expansive sense of possibilities for the future (more information about this model here).
Every person must find his or her own way in this. The contours of the path emerge from the uniqueness of each individual. Options for growth and support of many kinds exist, including groups and information for help.
Lack of options and external resources is rarely the biggest challenge, rather it is perhaps finding the strength to persevere in constructing life around the new resources that emerge following trauma.
I think that at the core of resiliency lays this unconscious ability of new life to emerge in the face of adversity. As survivors, we all have it. We keep on moving and shifting our formation, until we find the mix of actions and resources right for us and gradually feel more capable and comfortable, inside and out. One of the biggest contributions that allies of trauma survivors can bring is encouragement, support, and careful listening as survivors expand awareness of emerging resources and explore ways to pursue them.
Gertel Kraybill, O. (2015). Experiential Training to Address Secondary Traumatic Stress in Aid Personnel. (Doctoral Dissertation). Lesley University, Cambridge, MA.
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: A new perspective on psychotraumatology. Psychiatric Times, 21(4), 58.
Scali, J., Gandubert, C., Ritchie, K., Soulier, M., Ancelin, M.-L., & Chaudieu, I. (2012). Measuring resilience in adult women using the 10-items Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (CD-RISC): Role of trauma exposure and anxiety disorders. PLOS ONE, 7(6), 1-7. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0039879