Life After Trauma

A traumatic experience can leave a person feeling broken, angry, hateful, useless, and/or depressed. With time and the appropriate therapy, survivors of trauma can go on to feel strength, forgiveness, empathy, purpose and happiness. Recovery is possible, and lessons learned in the furnace of affliction can go on to be a great strength in a survivor’s life.

Last summer, I wrote a post about being a secondary survivor: those who are the family or loved ones of someone who suffers a traumatic experience. I wrote about how difficult it can be for secondary survivors to watch their loved one struggle and deal with the aftermath of the trauma. I wrote about ways that secondary survivors can help their loved ones as he/she works to overcome their trauma, and offered specific suggestions for things to say to those who have experienced trauma. This post is dedicated to the survivor; although you may feel bruised and broken from the storm you have endured, as you look ahead, you can find your rainbow.

Let’s first define trauma. Trauma is broadly defined as something that produces psychological injury or pain. A traumatic experience can include (but is not limited to) divorce, rape, kidnapping, abuse (physical or emotional), natural disasters, fires, accidents, illness, bereavement, war, etc. Common reactions to trauma include anxiety, trouble sleeping, nightmares, flashbacks, OCD, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), strained relationships, and unpredictable behaviors. In short, the aftermath of a traumatic experience can affect a person’s very being–including his/her daily walk and talk.

Although it may not feel like it immediately after the event, there is life after trauma. In fact, a difficult event can often lead to growth! We see this modeled in nature–majestic rainbows appear after torrential rainfall; butterflies emerge from their cocoon only after the caterpillar disappears as if dead in the cocoon; and even after the coldest of winters, flora and fauna reemerge or blossom for springtime. There are positive outcomes to come out of the wake of trauma; allow me to enumerate a few:

  • Recognizing strength. One of my friends experienced a horrible car accident where not only was she physically injured, but her friend’s life was lost. My friend’s rehabilitation took time, but she summoned the strength to face each day, took the time for both physical and emotional therapy, and is flourishing today. Trauma can teach us about our strength–how much we can endure and withstand giving in. Not only that, but once that strength is found, it is difficult to refrain from applying said strength to other situations. Survivors of traumatic situations tend to use their enhanced resilience to bounce back from opposition better than their pre-trauma selves.
  • Extending forgiveness. It takes incredible courage to be able to forgive the person who rapes you, abuses you, or crashes into you. But holding on to anger, hate, and frustration cankers the soul; when we let go of being wronged, we release bitterness and resentment that is poison to us. It is liberating to forgive, and often the forgiver receives more benefits than the person who is forgiven!
  • Feeling empathy. Experiencing trauma firsthand connects us to so many others who have faced hardship. Until we experience trauma, it can be difficult to really understand what other people are going through, what they are thinking, or what they really need to heal. The connection and compassion a trauma survivor gains provides a further source of strength, as well as, the ability to strengthen, connect with, and comfort others.
  • Finding purpose. Many survivors find that living through a traumatic experience awakens a passion or a deep purpose within them. Elizabeth Smart–who was kidnapped at age 14 and survived nine months in captivity–has used her horrifying experiences to become advocate and published author, traveling around the world bringing awareness to others. Sometimes, the darkest moments of our lives can inspire us to serve others.
  • Enjoying life. One of my clients has survived two deployments to Afghanistan. Although he faces understandable bouts of PTSD, he has found such vigor for living, and gratitude for life. To be alive in a functioning body is an amazing thing. Sometimes traumatic experiences help us enjoy aspects of life we had previously taken for granted.

Trauma is hard, scary, overwhelming. Surviving trauma, however, can teach you things you never knew about yourself, can help you comfort those similarly struggling, can awaken purpose and gratitude for living, and so much more. You may walk away from your trauma a better, changed person. As Viktor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Often, those changes can result in positive growth.  If you can wade through the storm your trauma puts you in, you will be able to look around after the storm passes to see how far you’ve come, see the beauty in your struggle, and see all the more clearly where you are going. You may even see that hopeful spectrum of light Issac Newton classified as a rainbow.

It takes time and work–sometimes both physical and emotional–to get to the other side of trauma. I am a qualified and experienced advocate; I can help you work through the effects of trauma. Please contact me today or schedule your first session and let me guide you as you write your story of life after trauma.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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