Transformation after Trauma

The road ahead post-trauma may be a long and difficult one. Clinical Psychologist and personal brand consultant Dr Lisa Orban looks at what it takes to turn a tragedy into a transformation.

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With Harvey Weinstein firmly in the spotlight, a lot of attention has been focused recently on the very difficult subject of sexual assault. For many victims, sexual assault or abuse can result in persistent trauma symptoms which can become significantly life-interfering. The road ahead post-trauma may be a long and difficult one, and it’s not uncommon for our identities to feel fractured after traumatic events, whether it be assault, divorce, loss, accident, or illness. Some can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can linger for years after the trauma has occurred. With the right support, however, many manage to move forward in building a rich and meaningful life despite past trauma, and even manage to convert that traumatic experience into something positive. But exactly how do we turn a tragedy into a transformation?

A lot of how we deal with trauma revolves around how we relate to it. Initially, it will likely be difficult to process the event, and our minds may try to make sense of a senseless act or wonder “why me”? These are all common thought processes in the wake of trauma, however if we allow ourselves to get hooked by unhelpful thoughts such as self-blaming or questioning “why me?”, then the healing process becomes much more difficult. Finding support, making space for these feelings, and engaging in forward movement (even with these thoughts present) will facilitate recovery.

Forward movement after trauma can take many forms. Some trauma survivors chose to channel their experiences into something that allows them to help others as a way to also help themselves. Examples of this are those who decide to run marathons to honour a recently departed family member, engage in volunteer work for victims of a fire, or set up a charity for sexual abuse survivors. Some may turn to more private coping strategies, such as taking to daily journaling or creating art. It’s what psychologists call Post Traumatic Growth, and it’s linked to being resilient generally.

So, what can help you build this resilience?

  • Solicit support. First and foremost, healing needs to happen and this can be greatly facilitated by support. Of course the support of friends cannot be under-estimated, but in the case of significant trauma, and most certainly with PTSD, the support of a psychologist or therapist with specialist experience in trauma may be needed. There are empirically validated treatments such as Prolonged Exposure Therapy, a type of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which has been proven to effectively treat symptoms of trauma
  • Accept that recovery will take time. If you try to get rid of, bury or ignore your feelings or memories, it will most likely backfire and maintain the trauma. This is a process. Things will change but you cannot force this
  • Remember your values. Turning to your personal values and using them to guide you through the dark times can help you remember who you are and what you stand for. Trauma may cloud that for a while but rediscovering and turning to your values is one more step in your journey toward healing
  • Remember that you are not your trauma. Treat this experience as just one part of you, not the total sum of your identity. By over-focusing on or over-sharing the trauma, you essentially are inviting the trauma to take centre stage in your life. Some also develop a “trauma identity” which can dominate their personal brand, such as becoming known as “the woman with the horrendous divorce” or the “victim” of an unfortunate event. In the end, this may not be the personal brand they were hoping to project
  • Decide whether disclosure is right for you. Disclosing trauma is a highly personal decision, and it’s important to make this decision carefully while staying true to yourself. For some, disclosure is not only cathartic, but also an empowering experience. An honest and courageous disclosure of “this happened to me” can inspire trust and authenticity, rendering the trauma less of a shameful secret. Again, by integrating this into your identity, you do now allow the trauma to hijack the entirety of your personal brand
  • Engage in forward movement…and keep moving. This hits on my initial point above. By identifying who or what is important to you and constantly finding ways to move towards them, even with trauma symptoms, you are putting yourself back in the driver’s seat
  • Transform your trauma. Some victims have managed to shape their trauma into something new, such as by founding charities or consultancies to assist others with similar struggles. Supporting others can also help you refocus on life, and not the trauma. This can be a very empowering way to transform trauma into a positive dimension of your personal brands

Most traumatic memories will never be forgotten. And in many instances, we may not feel like the same person after the trauma. The important thing is to not get stuck in the shattered pieces. Keep move forward to continue building a meaningful, values-directed life, one that is full of vitality…in spite of the past. You may even find yourself emerging with more depth, empathy, strength and resilience than before.

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