Can Trauma Make Us Stronger?

Stephen Joseph, PhD, professor of psychology at University of Nottingham, UK. (Photo credit: Maria Tanner at Lace Market Photography)

Great – another f***ing growth opportunity,” reads the classic bumper sticker. “Classic” here means, “old”, especially given that ‘personal growth’ seems as outdated as Esalen, hot tubs and encounter sessions. In his new book, “What Doesn’t Kill Us”, Stephen Joseph, PhD pries the concept free from associations with self-indulgence by linking it to Grandpa’s good, old-fashioned ‘character building’ – finding strength through suffering.

In 1990, Joseph conducted three-year follow-up interviews with survivors of the Herald of Free Enterprise sinking. Those who lived through the tragedy reported all of the pain, guilt and sleeplessness researchers expected. Yet, surprisingly, 43% also made comments like, “I live everyday to the fullest now,” and “I am more determined to succeed in life now.” Joseph, professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham, UK, used these findings to develop his Changes in Outlook Questionaire (CiOQ), and found it repeatedly confirmed such signs of personal growth in hundreds of trauma survivors.   Like Viktor Frankl, Joseph “… saw two sides of suffering, noting that while there might be nothing inherently good in misfortune, it might be possible to extract something good out of misfortune.” He argues against Freud’s view that therapy’s role is to get clients back to common unhappiness. Rather, the therapist’s job should be to help people lift themselves above their pre-trauma level of functioning – to grow.

"... 'terror'... 'torment'... 'tragedy' .... here it is, 'trauma'."

Every trauma survivor seeks information. They’re filled with questions such as, “ What happened? Why can’t I put it behind me? Why did this have to happen at all?” Joseph presents PTSD as an information-processing problem. To be traumatized is to be blasted with unbearable knowledge at an intolerable volume.  So much, so fast, creates an overload that destroys neurons in the hippocampus and hampers one’s ability to process the memory. These ‘uncategorizable’ recollections drift about the mind in the form of flashbacks and nightmares, like so many piles of paperwork on a desk. To file such memories away properly, the survivor’s understanding of the world must grow. A new file folder with a new category, (one that makes sense of the memory), must be labeled.  Unanswerable “Why me?” questions aren’t resistance or self-pity – they are the start of the search for meaning. 

None of Joseph’s ideas fit on a bumper sticker, and all are ripe for misinterpretation. One can sense his desire for a rubber stamp reading, “OF COURSE”.  Of course trauma survivors suffer, he says. Of course no one would choose trauma for the benefits of post-traumatic growth. Of coursePositive Psychology” doesn’t mean clients censor their pain with smiley-face stickers. He makes it clear that growth is not a guaranteed result of trauma, and lack of growth is not evidence of poor character. First, Ryan and Deci’s basic needs (such as acceptance and belonging) must be met. A client must choose to engage in the growth process before that process can begin. When a person is traumatized enough to meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, growth won’t happen until those symptoms ease in treatment. A more specific, less marketable title might have been, “What Doesn’t Kill Us or Give Us PTSD.”

The last issue is particularly relevant, given Salon.com’s try at shoehorning the author’s ideas into an “over-diagnosis” narrative.  Joseph straddles the diagnosis debate. He observes that a PTSD diagnosis validates a client’s story. It’s undoubtedly a good thing  survivors have been moved from the file marked, “Malingering coward,” into the one labeled, “Someone with an understandable, treatable illness who is deserving of our compassion.” He’s troubled, though, that the same redefinition moves trauma from the, “I will survive this and grow stronger,” category  to the, “This is something the doctor needs to fix,” file.  In his view, our current understanding can file trauma survival under stiff-lipped perseverance or a treatable illness, but not the process of becoming someone new.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900). Personal-growth pioneer - not actually to blame for WWII.

Perhaps this critique of the medical model explains why the book is weakest when it addresses treatments for post-traumatic symptoms. It’s clear Joseph’s focus is to break up our thinking about trauma. He encourages therapists to speak in the disease model’s terms long enough to engage the client in the process of growth, but rushes past descriptions of how specific symptoms can be eased so growth can begin. With all of the book’s valuable advice for clients on coping with stress and finding professional help, one wishes the author spent more time on why, how, and how well different treatments work.

In “What Doesn’t Kill Us”, the author wire-walks his way between the fact-free fluff of self-help and the rigid, symptom-focused empiricism of insurance panels, to show how Nietzche‘s maxim can apply to leading a fulfilling life, not just survival in a vicious world. What doesn’t kill us provides the opportunity to nurture changes in our thoughts, behaviors and understanding of how life works. We can grow enough from adversity that the answer to, “Why did this have to happen?” becomes, “So I could be a stronger, more compassionate, more fully-alive person.”

(The New York Times has an excellent article about post-traumatic growth among members of the U.S. military here.)

@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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Filed under anxiety, Diagnosis, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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