Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Silver Linings of Posttraumatic Growth: ‘The Bigger The Challenge, The More Likely The Growth’

It’s fair to say that this is a difficult year and we’re under a lot of pressure, so Capsule has decided to bring you a three-part mental-health check in series, with Dr Lucy Hone, co-director of New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience. We’ve covered the cause and symptoms of burnout, how do you know when you should quit your job and now, the power of post-traumatic growth. For our final instalment, we look at how rebuilding your life after trauma can lead to a better, happier and more peaceful life.

As the co-director of New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience, Dr Lucy Hone has been professionally walking the talk for a long time – in fact it’s been 12 years since her research in the field of psychological resilience began. But her home life too has tested her personal resilience, forcing her to endure some of the hardest circumstances possible. After shifting from the UK to Canterbury, Lucy lived through the 2010-2012 Canterbury earthquakes and describes them as her first experience of living through traumatic events. However, a few years later, her life was tested again when her 12-year-old daughter, Abi, was killed alongside Lucy’s family friend Sally Summerfield, and Sally’s daughter Ella, in a tragic car accident. The life that Lucy leads now, along with her husband and two sons, is very different from the one they all lead before Abi’s death. They have all had to learn a lot about living with loss.

“When people are forced to endure highly challenging circumstances, or a traumatic event occurs, it can feel like their whole world has been smashed apart, none of it makes any sense any more and the world doesn’t behave as it should. When that happens, in the process of rebuilding their lives, people very often rebuild it differently from before,” Lucy says, explaining the meaning of ‘posttraumatic growth.’ “I don’t want to use the phrase ‘better off than before’, because I’m never going to be better off without Abi, I’d do anything to go back to the days when we were a family of five, but I can see that my life has grown and changed direction because of her loss. I have a greater appreciation for life because of what has happened, losing the girls fundamentally changed me.”

“I don’t want to use the phrase ‘better off than before’, because I’m never going to be better off without Abi, I’d do anything to go back to the days when we were a family of five, but I can see that my life has grown and changed direction because of her loss.”

‘Resilient’ as a term can sometimes conjure up images of rigid, staunch, immovable strength. Living in Christchurch, Lucy’s quite familiar with the good old ‘harden up’ and ‘she’ll be right’ approach. But, she says, resilience is actually more about mental agility in hard times. “For many people, the harrowing events of their lives change them forever, so resilience isn’t so much about ‘bouncing back’, but letting the events of your life shape you and taking control over that where you can. It’s about being realistic, saying, ‘This shit has happened… now what can I do?’”

In the immediate aftermath of a tragic event – or even in the fearful anticipation of how we would respond to such an event – it can be easy to assume that catastrophes offer nothing but an end of the road. However, growth is not only possible but it’s also very common, explains Lucy. “What we can tell from the research is that the bigger the challenge, the more likely the growth. It’s important to note that the growth comes from the struggle during the aftermath of the event, not the event itself, and so it can take time. 

The five dimensions of posttraumatic growth, as identified by researchers.

1. A renewed sense of personal strength

“We often hear people say: I’m so much stronger than I ever thought I would be,’ or ‘I can’t believe I was able to get through that,’.” It’s an attitude shared particularly by people who are cancer survivors; Lucy cites Jake Bailey (the former Head Monitor at Christchurch Boys High whose 2015 speech – and subsequent book and role as a public speaker) as an example of someone who acknowledges his life has been profoundly changed by cancer.

2. Different relationship with others.

The meaningful relationships in your life become front and centre in a way that can be easy to forget about when we’re consumed by deadlines, work commitments and general life busy-ness. People experiencing posttraumatic growth tend to realise their loved ones remain their most precious priority. Since the death of Abi, Lucy and her husband, always priortise family and friends over work. “When people ask me to work at 8pm at night, I just say no. That’s not what I do any longer. I still get push back, but those boundaries are non-negotiable. We know what matters now.”

3. A sense of new possibilities

This can mean going down a different life path or building a career that wouldn’t have been there before. In Lucy’s case, all her work on parental grief stems from her own life-changing experience of it. “I would never have written my book, Resilient Grieving, or done that TED talk if Abi hadn’t lived and Abi hadn’t died. Her presence, however short, has pushed me into a completely different line of work, and helping others in this way, helps me and makes her short life count.”

4. A greater appreciation of all that life has to offer.

“It’s hard to talk about this without sounding clichéd,” laughs Lucy, “but traumatic events shake up your every day world that it never looks and feels the same after”. So many of us have felt this after each of the Covid lockdowns: remember how amazing being able to go out and get a flat white was after six weeks of Level 4, or seeing friends again after lockdown (those good times ARE coming again, we swear!). Holding onto that level of appreciation for longer stays with you after a true traumatic event.

5. A spiritual or existential change

For some people, Lucy says, this can be challenging their religious beliefs following a traumatic event (or even the opposite!) “It’s a time where you really do confront the big questions and ask ‘what is life all about.’” In her own case, after Abi’s death, Lucy says she’s never lost that sense of “Life is short and precious and you’ve got to do what you can, while you can, for the people you care about and make your short time count.”

For more information on the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience, please visit https://nziwr.co.nz/

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