New research shows that a traumatic experience can become a catalyst for personal growth
On Friday 13 November 2009, petite Pinetown teacher Kavisha Seevnarain, then 26, was hijacked at gunpoint by four men, taken on a nightmare ride down the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, and pushed off the Umkomaas River Bridge. She plunged the equivalent of 20 storeys to a sandbank covered in shallow water, shattering her pelvis and ribs and injuring her spine. Sensing she would drown as the tide came in, she dragged herself to a bridge support and clung there, half submerged in icy water, until daybreak when her screams were heard by a passer-by.
As traumatic experiences go, it’s hard to imagine worse. Yet four years later, Seevnarain has grown tremendously through it. ‘My body healed first; emotions take longer, and I still don’t know if I can forgive the men who did it,’ she says frankly. (Three were sentenced to between
12 and 40 years in prison.) ‘But I’ve undoubtedly become more mature, patient and tolerant. At the same time, I’m more determined to make the most of life — I’m now doing an MBA. And my heart has grown much bigger: I recently found myself raising funds for an underprivileged pupil at my school to sing in a choir competition in Italy. I’m more wary, but also more optimistic and proactive. Surviving trauma showed me that, as [singer-songwriter] Vivian Green put it, «Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain».’
The idea that suffering can transform you and bring positive change is not new — aspects of it can be found in most religions and countless books and plays. But in the last 20 years it has been researched and promoted as a new science by psychologists led by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun at the University of North Carolina in the US. They call it post-traumatic growth (PTG) — the flip side of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which comes from the inability to control your fear response, leaving sufferers stuck in a state of high alertness with ongoing anxiety, constant flashbacks and chronic insomnia.
The ‘growth’ in PTG, as Tedeschi and Calhoun explain in Trauma And Transformation: Growing In The Aftermath Of Suffering (Sage), comes not as a result of trauma, but from people’s learning to deal with the reality they are faced with afterwards. They report that this growth includes a deeper appreciation of life, new priorities, warmer relationships, greater personal strength, recognition of new possibilities in life, and increased spiritual satisfaction. And they claim that while just a small percentage of people experience PTSD, many experience growth, even while they suffer through a traumatic experience. One of the earliest studies on PTG, for example, was on airmen who had been captured during the Vietnam War. According to the New York Times, more than 60% of them reported that the experience had changed them for the better.
South African psychologists recognise the value of PTG, but advise care. ‘I’d be very cautious about downplaying the effects of trauma,’ says Use Ahrends, empowerment manager at the Saartjie Baartman Centre For Women And Children in Cape Town. ‘It could put an extra burden of expectation or guilt on a traumatised person, who may now feel that she shouldn’t be having post-traumatic symptoms, but should be able to see the potential for growth instead. We need to acknowledge the suffering of others as very real and painful first, before slowly helping them to reframe their experiences more positively. But yes, it’s definitely possible to grow while suffering.’
Johannesburg psychologist Illeana Cocotos adds, ‘I’ve had the privilege of working with young people who’ve experienced profound loss, but chosen to live each day as if it were their last, and others who, as a result of physical illness, have learnt to live a calmer, slower life where they’ve chosen to be more present in each moment. But to experience PTG, you need the ability to reflect on the traumatic incident in order to reconstruct your beliefs and understanding of the world. You may need to learn to adopt new perspectives and change your behaviour — to accept that bad things happen in life, but be able to adapt.’
Factors for growth
‘Openness to experience and a willingness to face difficulties rather than avoid them are clearly associated with PTG,’ says Cocotos. The severity of the trauma also affects our ability to experience growth. ‘A minor incident may not have the same impact,’ she says. ‘A trauma that involves a life-or-death situation can prompt us to develop a deeper appreciation of life.’
But one of the biggest factors for growth, says Ahrends, is finding support. Seevnarain could not agree more: ‘My experience taught me that we are the architects of our own lives,’ she says, ‘but the loving support of my family has been key in rebuilding mine.’
GROWING THROUGH TRAUMA
I • Don’t avoid your feelings.’It’s necessary to go through the emotional pain first,’ says Cocotos.
2. Connect. Talk with family, friends, a therapist or support group.
3 . Reflect deeply on the hidden meaningfulness of the event. It may help to take a more expanded view of life.
4. Use your experience to help others. ‘You’ll be able to connect with them on a new level,’ says Cocotos.
5 . ‘Remind yourself that even superheroes encounter traumatic events,’ concludes Cocotos. ‘Rather than falter when faced with adversity, they’re challenged to discover their inner strength. This redefines who they are, what their purpose is, and their destiny is forever changed.’