Sometimes, Trauma Can Have Positive Outcomes

Sometimes, Trauma Can Have Positive Outcomes

"I regarded every minute I was alive as a gift...I vowed to survive."

Ryan Fan
Ryan Fan

Post-traumatic growth is defined as a positive psychological change experienced from adversity to rise to a higher level of functioning. In faith and spiritual traditions throughout almost all of the human existence, there is a consensus that suffering can yield positive change and growth, and almost everyone can agree that you don't grow much when your life is easy.

The other day, I stumbled upon an article written by Jim Rendon in the NYTimes about how some soldiers grow positively form their wartime trauma. The article begins with the story of Sgt. Jeffrey Beltran, who suffered a mild traumatic brain injury in an I.E.D. attack in Iraq in 2005. After the explosion, he had 14 surgical operations performed the next year. He was on several medications. His brain injury was severe enough that his short-term memory was no longer reliable - Beltran had to obsessively check planners and post-it notes to jog his memory

The army deployed him again a couple years later helping NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) clear minefields. He saw a farmer blown up and a close friend and fellow soldier killed. Despite the stress and trauma, he stayed in the army, as his father and grandfather had done before him.

Beltran started noticing changes due to his hardships, and these hardships changed him for the better. "This whole experience has helped me to be more open, more flexible... I am branching out to activities that I was once uncomfortable with." In the meantime, Beltran took numerous rigorous exams pursuing a promotion, and took online courses towards a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. He rediscovered his spirituality, remarried, and reconnected with his parents. To this day, he carries the pictures of the explosion to "remind himself of what he overcame."

The foremost psychological researchers behind post-traumatic growth are two professors at University of North Carolina, Charlotte: Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. "I thought, Who do I want to know the most about, distressed or violent or crazy people? Instead, I want to know about wise people. Perhaps I'll learn something myself." First, the two researchers interviewed survivors of severe injuries, and then they interviewed widows and widowers.

Almost everyone said the same thing: they deeply wish their sufferings didn't happen, but the experience changed them for the better. The five areas that people most generally report positive change are as follows: the found a new appreciation for life, they found new possibilities for themselves, their spiritual lives improved, their relationships grew stronger, and they felt more personal strength. Paradoxically, post-traumatic growth happens while it co-exists with PTSD.

Since after the Vietnam War, Rendon argues, the attention has been on PTSD. In 2011, the Department of Veteran Affairs spent $5 billion on mental-health services. In 2010, the Army gave PTSD diagnoses to over 10,000 troops. But only a few studies have asked soldiers about the positive changes they experienced, and the results have been very surprising. A 1980 study on aviators captured during the Vietnam War found that 61 percent benefited psychologically from their experience in captivity. Most of these aviators said their faith grew stronger and they enjoyed life more. They appreciated other people more, and most surprisingly, the aviators treated the most harshly in captivity were the ones who reported the most positive change. "Perhaps it was no more than the desire to give meaning to a horrible time in their lives," Rendon notes as a rational explanation.

Rendon once met Tedeschi and the latter noted that only a "seismic event" can lead to post-traumatic growth. A seismic event is one that "causes you to question your fundamental assumptions about the world." Survivors of trauma this severe confront a variety of existential questions that the majority of people don't need to answer. For survivors, the growth does not come from the event itself; it rarely does. It comes from the rumination afterwards, the struggle to make sense of what happened. "Don't just rebuild the same crappy building you had before. Why not build something better?"

The Army now has a resilience program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, which intends to help soldiers become more resilient and recognize how traumas in combat can change them for the better. The program was brought to fruition by Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, a physician and former prisoner of war. Her helicopter was shot down in a rescue mission, and she was held a prisoner for eight days. "I regarded every minute I was alive as a gift...I vowed to survive." Very few people would consider being in a position like Cornum's as lucky, but, she laughed at this note, and said: "If you don't do that, why would you ever proceed with anything?"

As a physician, she started to empathize more with her patients because she was one. She came grew closer to her family and became a better leader. Later, she wanted to develop a psychological training program for the Army, and met with famous positive psychologist, Martin Seligman to start the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. Seligman had a theory that if soldiers could be taught to approach a situation as Cornum did - "with gratitude for being alive rather than distress at being taken prisoner," they would gain resilience. A fundamental part of the program, too, is not to evaluate an event as good or bad, but solely neutral. The reaction to the event is more important. Soldiers are also asked to write down three good things that happened on a day. Whether Seligman's interventions actually apply to the extremely harsh realities of war have yet to be seen. These interventions are often aimed at healthy people, not soldiers faced with tragedy and atrocity.

But one thing that is clear is this: our view of trauma is growing much more complicated. According to Rendon, the perspective used to be "you either got P.T.S.D. or you were fine." Researchers today often acknowledge that it's normal to lose sleep, be devastated by guilt and fear, and have problems in general. With only a small percentage of exceptions, the majority of people that suffer trauma recover and grow as they suffer. "We bend, we break, we repair and rebuild, and often we grow, changing for the better in ways we never would have if we had not suffered."

There is the obvious caveat, too: the exceptions. Not everyone comes out of a trauma changed for the better. Sometimes a dependence on drugs as treatment "might even stifle growth." But Pamela Fisher, a director of primary care mental health at the Oklahoma City VA Home, encourages doctors to get their patients to "work through the pain, to see it as a motivation." It is a touchy idea and subject, and timing is critical. Doctors should not talk to patients about growth before they have even completed therapy, so there's a balance between a great idea in post-traumatic growth and making sure it is done right.

And then there's also the question of whether post-traumatic growth factually exists. Every person questioned in these surveys is self-reporting their growth and change through their traumas. Friends and spouses might not even notice anything, and "in the wake of trauma, people might tell themselves they changed for the better, if only as a way of making sense of a senseless tragedy." Growth and resilience often aren't measurable, and Howard Tennen, a professor at the University of Connecticut, if it's not measurable, then it cannot be promoted.

But isn't the fact that these patients think and believe they've grown and transformed because of their traumatic experiences a victory in itself? Aren't the patient themselves the final judges for whether they themselves are growing? Tedeschi, for one, promotes his own work and observations. Almost all psychological research relies on memory, and even if these growth experiences are illusions and placebos, Tedeschi contends that "I don't think you can dismiss it. People can have profound personal experiences that directly change their perception and philosophy." Rendon ends the article with a quote from Sgt. Beltran, who doesn't label himself as a PTSD veteran, but a post-traumatic-growth veteran. "I am a person looking forward," he says.

Although Rendon's article is one that applies to the trauma of war veterans, trauma isn't a phenomenon exclusive to those at wars. I have my own traumas, as have many of my friends, and I can say first hand that I believe, with the utmost confidence, that I have grown substantially as a result of my traumas. I became a Christian because of how I owned certain events in my childhood. I found friends and relationships for life. I feel like I'm the luckiest person alive all the time. I still feel consumed by the pain of events that have shaken the core of my foundations, a lot. But I don't want to waste that pain. It is fuel to keep moving forward, like Sgt. Beltran and Brid. Gen. Cornum, and I'm lucky enough to still be standing and able to do so.

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To The Person Who Feels Suicidal But Doesn't Want To Die

Suicidal thoughts are not black and white.

Everyone assumes that if you have suicidal thoughts that means you want to die.

Suicidal thoughts are thought of in such black-and-white terms. Either you have suicidal thoughts and you want to die, or you don't have suicidal thoughts and you want to live. What most people don't understand is there are some stuck in the gray area of those two statements, I for one am one of them.

I've had suicidal thoughts since I was a kid.

My first recollection of it was when I came home after school one day and got in trouble, and while I was just sitting in the dining room I kept thinking, “I wonder what it would be like to take a knife from the kitchen and just shove it into my stomach." I didn't want to die, or even hurt myself for that matter. But those thoughts haven't stopped since.

I've thought about going into the bathroom and taking every single pill I could find and just drifting to sleep and never waking back up, I've thought about hurting myself to take the pain away, just a few days ago on my way to work I thought about driving my car straight into a tree. But I didn't. Why? Because even though that urge was so strong, I didn't want to die. I still don't, I don't want my life to end.

I don't think I've ever told anyone about these feelings. I don't want others to worry because the first thing anyone thinks when you tell them you have thoughts about hurting or killing yourself is that you're absolutely going to do it and they begin to panic. Yes, I have suicidal thoughts, but I don't want to die.

It's a confusing feeling, it's a scary feeling.

When the depression takes over you feel like you aren't in control. It's like you're drowning.

Every bad memory, every single thing that hurt you, every bad thing you've ever done comes back and grabs you by the ankle and drags you back under the water just as you're about the reach the surface. It's suffocating and not being able to do anything about it.

The hardest part is you never know when these thoughts are going to come. Some days you're just so happy and can't believe how good your life is, and the very next day you could be alone in a dark room unable to see because of the tears welling up in your eyes and thinking you'd be better off dead. You feel alone, you feel like a burden to everyone around you, you feel like the world would be better off without you. I wish it was something I could just turn off but I can't, no matter how hard I try.

These feelings come in waves.

It feels like you're swimming and the sun is shining and you're having a great time until a wave comes and sucks you under into the darkness of the water. No matter how hard you try to reach the surface again a new wave comes and hits you back under again, and again, and again.

And then it just stops.

But you never know when the next wave is going to come. You never know when you're going to be sucked back under.

I always wondered if I was the only one like this.

It didn't make any sense to me, how did I think about suicide so often but not want to die? But I was thinking about it in black and white, I thought I wasn't allowed to have those feelings since I wasn't going to act on them. But then I read articles much like this one and I realized I'm not the only one. Suicidal thoughts aren't black and white, and my feelings are valid.

To everyone who feels this way, you aren't alone.

I thought I was for the longest time, I thought I was the only one who felt this way and I didn't understand how I could feel this way. But please, I implore you to talk to someone, anyone, about the way you're feeling, whether it be a family member, significant other, a friend, a therapist.

My biggest mistake all these years was never telling anyone how I feel in fear that they would either brush me off because “who could be suicidal but not want to die?" or panic and try to commit me to a hospital or something. Writing this article has been the greatest feeling of relief I've felt in a long time, talking about it helps. I know it's scary to tell people how you're feeling, but you're not alone and you don't have to go through this alone.

Suicidal thoughts aren't black and white, your feelings are valid, and there are people here for you. You are not alone.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline — 1-800-273-8255

Cover Image Credit: BengaliClicker

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In Real Life, 'Plus Size' Means A Size 16 And Up, Not Just Women Who Are Size 8's With Big Breasts

The media needs to understand this, and give recognition to actual plus-size women.


Recently, a British reality dating TV show called "Love Island" introduced that a plus-sized model would be in the season five lineup of contestants. This decision was made after the show was called out for not having enough diversity in its contestants. However, the internet was quick to point out that this "plus-size model" is not an accurate representation of the plus-size community.

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Anna Vakili, plus-size model and "Love Island "Season 5 Contestant Yahoo UK News

It is so frustrating that the media picks and chooses women that are the "ideal" version of plus sized. In the fashion world, plus-size starts at size 8. EIGHT. In real life, plus-size women are women who are size 16 and up. Plunkett Research, a marketing research company, estimated in 2018 that 68% of women in America wear a size 16 to 18. This is a vast difference to what we are being told by the media. Just because a woman is curvy and has big breasts, does NOT mean that they are plus size. Marketing teams for television shows, magazines, and other forms of media need to realize that the industry's idea of plus size is not proportionate to reality.

I am all for inclusion, but I also recognize that in order for inclusion to actually happen, it needs to be accurate.

"Love Island" is not the only culprit of being unrealistic in woman's sizes, and I don't fully blame them for this choice. I think this is a perfect example of the unrealistic expectations that our society puts on women. When the media tells the world that expectations are vastly different from reality, it causes women to internalize that message and compare themselves to these unrealistic standards.

By bringing the truth to the public, it allows women to know that they should not compare themselves and feel bad about themselves. Everyone is beautiful. Picking and choosing the "ideal" woman or the "ideal" plus-size woman is completely deceitful. We as a society need to do better.

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