Thriving After a Loss

Building resilience in tough times.

Posted Aug 03, 2019

Trauma comes in many forms: as illness, bereavement, divorce, infertility, abuse and natural disasters. I have also seen more subtle forms of trauma in people involved in lengthy, intrusive court cases; those feeling threatened with a great personal or professional loss; or for caregivers and healthcare professionals who regularly witness the immensity of human suffering.

One thing I’ve learned in my years as a psychologist is we all have a tremendous capacity for resilience. Patients, or “thrivers” as I like to call them, repeatedly astound me with the ways they flourish after terrible life circumstances. Thrivers often endorse a deeper spiritual connection, appreciation of family and friends, discovery of personal strengths, and reprioritization of commitments. While we often can’t prevent setbacks, there are a number of things to get you on the path to thriving.

Understand Normal Responses to Trauma

Trauma occurs when you become so overwhelmed by an event or imagined event that you are left feeling vulnerable, weak, and unsafe. It is common to question your purpose in life and feel inadequate and negative in the weeks and months following. The shattering of beliefs about yourself, others, and the future is a normal response to trauma and does not indicate a psychological disorder or weakness in your character.

Where there is vulnerability, there is strength; where there is grief, there is gratitude; and where there are losses, there are gains. Balancing your vulnerability along with your strengths can be a key part of recovering from trauma.

Reduce Negative Thinking

We all have thoughts sometimes that either aren’t true or that make us feel worse about our current situation. You might engage in “catastrophic thinking,” imagining the worst-case scenario. To challenge catastrophic thinking, ask yourself what evidence supports this outcome, use optimism, and put the situation in perspective. Another common thought pattern is all-or-nothing thinking; for example, you get negative feedback on a performance review and then imagine that all of your colleagues judge you negatively.

Exercise, relaxation, hobbies, creative tasks, talking with others, and work can all help reduce negativity and/or anxiety after a trauma. A daily mindfulness meditation practice can also promote calm and reduce stress. Mindfulness can aid in decreasing hyperarousal symptoms, helping survivors reconnect with their body and differentiate past memories from here-and-now sensations. Through this practice, thrivers may build strength and resilience by acquiring a sense of control, developing internal resources for symptom reduction and healing, and facilitating the meaning-making process.1

Disclose to Others

All of us need trusted people in our lives, to validate our feelings and foster new understandings, especially when circumstances feel incomprehensible. As psychiatrist (and trauma and mindfulness specialist) Dr. Daniel Siegel writes, “Healing is gaining scientific respectability: We are starting to understand that healing is a process with its own characteristic phenomena and mechanisms, one that needs to be elucidated in its own right—and that emotions are at the core of it.”2

Bottling up trauma can lead to physical and psychological distress. Individuals who suppress their emotions tend to express less positivity and experience greater negative emotion. Part of the healing process is the constructive disclosure of personal experiences with those you trust.

Form a Trauma Narrative

Putting a traumatic event into words helps you cope, express mixed emotions, and organize a chaotic time in your life. The coping process for a survivor often includes an active search for meaning in the events; questions like, “Why me?” “Why now?” “What can I learn from the event?” are examples of such a search for meaning.3

Narratives can be shared through talks with family and friends, journaling, blogging, public speaking, support groups, individual therapy, and volunteering. By sharing your story, you regain control and decrease the trauma’s emotional impact. Mental health professionals can share in the co-creation of your narrative and help you see the multiple paradoxes within trauma. The significance of the event can change over time, as does our self-image and our perception of our behavior. When a trauma narrative is well built with a coherent story, a significance, and a positive self-image, levels of post-traumatic symptoms decrease.3  

Strengthen Life Principles and Values

Strengthening the values that are important to you facilitates a stronger identity and opens new pathways for growth. Bolstering skills like proactivity, outreach, mentorship, and artistic expression can be critical to the thriving response. Thrivers show renewed faith, closer relationships, leadership skills, mental strengths, and increased productivity. Rather than feeling locked in a repetitive state or pain reduction efforts, thrivers seek out meaning and purpose. You know you have become a thriver when you have reached an acceptance of your trauma and a new sense of calm and happiness.

References

1.         Goodman, R., & Calderon, A. (2012). The Use of Mindfulness in Trauma Counseling. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 34(3), 254-268. doi:10.17744/mehc.34.3.930020422n168322

2.         Siegel D., and Solomon M. (2011). The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice. W. W. Norton & Company.

3.         Tuval-Mashiach, R., Freedman, S., Bargai, N., Boker, R., Hadar, H., & Shalev, A. Y. (2004). Coping with Trauma: Narrative and Cognitive Perspectives. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 67(3), 280-293. doi:10.1521/psyc.67.3.280.48977