“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” – Carl Jung
In the therapy community and in general circles, there is a lot of talk about trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It seems to me that these days, especially after two years of COVID, extreme political polarization and an increasing awareness of institutionalized injustice, that we are finally getting a handle on why so many people suffer from “mental health” issues.
I put quotes around mental health for a reason- a significant amount of research data point to the fact that in the majority of cases, people suffering from any mental health challenge have experienced major trauma; often as young children. So in my mind, the question becomes,
Should we call this a ‘mental health issue’ or would it be more useful to label symptoms of all kinds, whether it be anxiety, depression or addiction as the ‘response to the after-effects of historical trauma’?
I love how Oprah Winfrey puts it when she discusses mental health. She learned from a trauma expert to ask people this one question:
What happened to you?
I highly recommend the book she co-wrote with trauma expert, Dr. Bruce Perry called, What Happened to you? Conversations of trauma, resilience and healing.
I don’t even use the term “mental illness” because it is so negative and contributes to stigmatization, discrimination and poor self-image to anyone unlucky enough to be given such a label.
A ground-breaking longitudinal study called Association of Childhood Trauma Exposure With Adult Psychiatric Disorders and Functional Outcomes which followed participants over 22 years, found a clear link between childhood trauma and the later development of mental health issues and addiction:
The childhoods of participants who went through traumatic events and those who didn’t were markedly different. Participants with trauma histories were 1.5 times as likely to have psychiatric problems…
Participants who experienced childhood trauma were 1.3 times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders than adults than those who did not experience trauma, and 1.2 times more likely to develop depression or substance abuse disorder.
I, like many therapists out there, have done core training in trauma therapy which seems to be very beneficial in helping clients resolve past traumas. I am honoured and amazed to be alongside the journey of so many people who are healing from trauma and their transformations are truly a testament to the power that we as humans have for resiliency and healing.
For those of you who want to do some of this work on your own, there are some incredible resources out there for helping you to heal from trauma. Here is one of my favourites:
Even though I work with trauma regularly, I don’t generally get burned out from hearing so many awful stories of traumatic experiences my clients have gone through. That is because in my trauma work training, I learned how to balance pain and suffering with joy and a deep sense of peace. And because I have the personal experience of healing my own trauma and well as assisting others to do the same, I know how we can truly transform our lives through this work.
I love the work being done in the Positive Psychology movement because it emphasizes the fact that we can learn to be happier and lead more meaningful lives regardless of the cards we got dealt early on in life:
Along similar lines, there are a lot of positives we can unearth and explore from our traumatic experiences. You may have heard of something called Post Traumatic Growth. Here’s a definition from the PTSD Association of Canada:
Post-traumatic growth (PTG) can be defined as positive personal changes that result from the survivor’s struggle to deal with trauma and its psychological consequences. The process of post-traumatic growth can lead to improved relationships with others, more compassion, openness, appreciation for life, spiritual growth, personal strength, and a renewed sense of possibilities in the world. This personal growth extends beyond pre-trauma functioning.
Here are some uplifting statistics and research outcomes on this phenomenon from a website on trauma recovery which was developed by the Manitoba Trauma Information and Education Centre:
The research suggests that between 30-70% of individuals who experienced trauma also report positive change and growth coming out of the traumatic experience. Individuals have described profound changes in their view of “relationships, how they view themselves and their philosophy of life.
What is essential to keep in mind is that post traumatic growth is not a direct result of trauma but rather related to how the individual struggles as a result of the trauma. There are a number of things that people who have experienced trauma and subsequent growth identify that was significant to their struggle. These include: having relationships where they felt “nurtured, liberated or validated” in addition to experiencing “genuine acceptance from others”. The ability to connect with people who are able to provide this level of assistance and support through active, attentive and compassionate listening can lead not only to recovery but can foster post traumatic growth.
I feel so blessed to be able to provide nurturing and healing relationships to my clients which assists them in healing from past traumas and to then experience the richness and beauty of post traumatic growth.
Here are three stories from my clients about healing from trauma and finding post traumatic growth as a result: