Trauma is not exclusively negative
Because trauma is far from a pleasant experience, we tend to think of it as only negative. However there is a widening scope of scholarship acknowledging the constructive side of trauma, such as the research on resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). In that research, a perplexing paradox of trauma is explored: in the midst of the deepest suffering can be found the seeds of hope and growth (Good Sider 2003, 2006). Although the phenomenon of adversity sparking positive change is far from a new development, it was not given much scientific attention until the 1990s when positive psychology showed an interest in studying the positive aspects of the human condition, not only with a focus on disease but also with attention paid to PTG alongside PTSD. The research developed further to consider how certain people not only bounce back from adversity (resilience) but even flourish as a result of it. Psychologists Tedeschi and Calhoun (1995, 2004) coined the term Post-Traumatic Growth as they encountered victims who not only survived but thrived after their experiences of trauma. These survivors have taught us how trauma can provide strength and how for some it can even be understood as a gift. Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg expresses the sentiments of many trauma survivors who differentiate themselves from being victims in his Survivor Psalm, which reads, in part: "I look forward with hope rather than despair. I may never forget, but I need not constantly remember. I was a victim, I am a survivor."6
Decades before PTG was coined, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote about a similar "tragic optimism,” how in the face of tragedy we can turn suffering into human achievement (1992, 139-154). After three years in World War II concentration camps, Frankl wrote in detail about how the camps conspired to make prisoners lose their hold on life. What remained was "the last of human freedoms” - the ability to "choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances" (Ibid., 9). Frankl reminds us that this choice allows for the possibility of positive growth and making meaning even in the most tragic circumstances. Frankl used tragic optimism to explain that humans can say yes to life in spite of the "tragic triad" of pain, guilt and death. This optimism in the face of great loss "presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive” (Ibid., 139), which, at its best, can turn suffering into human achievement and accomplishment, even creating an incentive to take responsible action (Ibid.).
Resilience is a related term that is often used interchangeably with PTG. Resilience is the ability to successfully navigate life’s challenges and changes and to bounce back from traumatic events. There are at least two important facets to resilience: sustainability and recovery. Resilience does not mean that we will be unchanged by the challenges of life. It means that we will be able to respond to these events in ways that do not compromise our overall ability to survive and thrive. In a previous study (Good 2013), three movements were discovered for survivors who resile: bending, bouncing and connecting. Resilience signifies the capacity to process organizational and situational stressors in a way where we bend with the wind that threatens to break us down, bounce forward or back and connect with others in order to find a new or renewed space where we can rebuild and thrive. New developments and research about resilience in conflict and trauma have clear implications for using intervention strategies that uncover strengths, identify coping abilities and promote growth (Sampson, Abu-Nimer and Liebier 2003).
Making meaning out of the loss and terror is one such strategy. Talking about her own meaning making process after surviving war. Amela Puljek-Shank highlighted her power of choice:
I began to see that I had a choice to remain in the inner circle of trauma (as victim) or move to the outer circle of trauma healing: a choice to heal rather than to hate and kill; a choice to possibly become a healthy individual again; a choice to take some steps to move back home after displacement - home to my spirit, my body, my homeland.
(Good Sider 2001)
Grappling to find a reason to go on after trauma is a question that many survivors ask over and over again: "What is this trauma good for?" In working with
Fundamentals of trauma 23 survivors, researchers are finding that it is important to pay attention to the questions that we ask; in this case, to focus on both the devastation of trauma as well as its constructive results.
While those who survive can never return to "normal” (the way things used to be), what is certain is that the trauma experience will result in change that will almost always be a mixture of positive and negative aspects. Van der Kolk is also clear that “[t]rauma really does confront you with the best and the worst. You see the horrendous things that people do to each other, but you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring" (2017). The negative aspects of post-traumatic change are post-traumatic deterioration and breakdown, as already discussed. By positive aspects of post-traumatic change, we mean the PTG experience of finding strength, opportunity and meaning in the midst of and following tragedy. Interviewing women after war trauma in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Rwanda, Marie E. Berry found women choosing to network and mobilize, entering the political process at many levels with a drive to make a positive difference (2018). Many trauma and crisis practitioners see trauma as both an occurrence of injury and also a juncture in which growth and opportunity are possibilities. In fact, many researchers indicate that resilience is the rule rather than the exception for those facing traumatic events (Echterling, Presbury and McKee 2005, 11; Good 2006). This book also includes contributions exploring this new and exciting field of learning how trauma can actually be positive.7