Dr Emma Kavanagh
+ Your AuthorsArchive @EmmaLK Author. Police & military psychologist. Fascinated by what the brain does when life is dangerous. Courage is critical for a well lived life. Rep by @CamillaWray Feb. 22, 2021 4 min read

Good morning. I am back at my desk & I am ready with another thread for you. I hoped I would be able to talk to you about the psychology of reintegration, but given that we are still very much in lockdown, instead I am going to focus on the concept of post traumatic growth.

I think there is a natural resistance in some people to this as an idea. As if, by suggesting that we can grow from our traumas, that we are somehow belittling them, or judging them not to have been that bad. That is absolutely NOT what I am saying.

When we experience a major, world shaking trauma, such as, oh I don’t know, a global pandemic, research shows us that the vast majority of people experience trauma reactions.

So I’m talking about anxiety, depression, stress, all of the usual culprits that roll up at times of adversity. This is normal. It’s a pandemic. It’s meant to suck!

In fact, in order for a trauma to lead to psychological growth, it kind of has to be awful. Missing your train is unlikely to create much in the way of growth, because it does not break us. It does not make us question everything we know about ourselves or the world around us.

The science tells us that in order to build, we first have to break.

This pandemic has taken away all that we believed the world to be. It has stripped us of coping supports. It has made so many of our goals (at least temporarily) redundant. In short, it has broken me.

But in amongst my brokenness, I noticed something. My kids can still make me laugh (they can make me scream too, but let's not focus on that for now). My dog can still climb on my lap and the weight of his affection can bring me peace. I still enjoy the sound of rain on a window.

Research tells us that those who are most likely to experience post traumatic growth are NOT those who are emotionally unaffected by trauma. Rather, growth comes when people can still find positives in amongst the negative.

Therein lies the rub. We need to recognise the truth of our situation, the negatives. But we also need to notice the good. The people who do best in the aftermath of a trauma are those who are able to look at it as a problem to be solved.

And what is REALLY interesting, is that our capacity for this, our ability to grow from trauma, is not something that is set in stone. The brain is enormously plastic, with an inherent ability to lay down new neuronal connections.

And an incredibly effective way of triggering post traumatic growth lies in what we see in the world around us.

Psychologists have discovered that having a role model for post traumatic growth can act as a powerful trigger. I’m talking about seeing people in our lives who go through adversity and come out stronger. About reading books and watching movies in which adversity drives growth.

As people, we are hugely influenced by what goes on around us, and the message that trauma does not have to lead to disorder is an immensely important one. Research tells us that only a small proportion of the population will suffer from things like PTSD in the aftermath

of a trauma. Most people will go back to being how they were before. Others will grow.

Things that will help point you towards growth - supportive role models, showing gratitude and kindness, emotional expression (telling people or writing the truth about how you feel), openness to new experiences, and seeking out positives in your environment.

I encourage you to look up the work of Martin Seligman and Barbara Fredrickson, who have written fascinating books on this.

Science shows us that being able to be positive means that we direct our attention outwards into the world, instead of inwards towards our own fears. And when you do that, your ability to spot new coping mechanisms, to be flexible and to solve problems, all increase dramatically.

It is not easy. We are not used to looking at our environment in that way. But we can learn. This is a REALLY long way of saying that we may be struggling now, but that struggle can mean something.

And now I have to go because my kids are knocking on my office door and my cat is climbing up my leg and my god, it’s a good job they’re all cute. Hang in there. You are going to get through this.

You can follow @EmmaLK.


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