In this offering we return to consideration of trauma as a significant mental health issue. In a previous journal entry (#027, posted in March 2019), Windhorse clinicians Dave Dunlap and Polly Banerjee Gallagher engaged in a dialogue about trauma as an inevitable part of what it means to be human. And rather than speak from the safety of their professional roles in that podcast, they offered insights drawn largely from their own personal experiences.
Trauma, in general conversation, is often and rightly recognized for its power to destabilize and even destroy a life. But in this written piece, Dave presents a view of trauma that receives much less attention: its potential for growth. Without minimizing the suffering and loss that are hallmarks of trauma, he speaks to the ways in which trauma can transform a person, for the betterment of not only oneself but of the larger world. There is a positive side to trauma if one can embrace it, and with the right kinds of resources. The Windhorse approach to mental health recovery is such a resource as it surrounds an individual with a supportive community, allowing for the transformation of pain and struggle into a richer life.
We hope you benefit from this expansive view of trauma, and that you will return to the Journal in two weeks for the podcast of Part Two of Dave and Polly’s discussion.
Lori S. Heintzelman
Post-Traumatic Growth: the trauma is only part of the journey
by Dave Dunlap, MA, LPC
When people discuss trauma, it seems to be viewed from only one side of the proverbial coin: the negative effects that trauma can have on our lives. How it interrupts and derails a life takes center stage. For many people, trauma represents something that breaks a person, that leaves them exposed and fragile, that leads to flaws in an individual, and sets one apart from others. It is understandable that people would feel this way; traumatic events can and often do lead to unpleasant and undesirable feelings and experiences which no one would choose to be a part of. However, to fully understand trauma and its capacity to awaken us to new possibilities for ourselves, we must talk about the other side of the coin: the side of growth, strength and empowerment.
The word trauma and the many, varied concepts that it represents took off in the mid-1900s. Prior to that it was a little-used word. It was originally a Greek word meaning “wound” and referred only to physical hurts. However, as modern psychotherapy evolved, so too did the definition of trauma, now more likely to represent “a deeply depressing or disturbing experience.” It makes sense that, just as trauma in its original understanding could lead to injuries that impaired a life and left one feeling less than oneself before the occurrence, the same quality of loss and destruction of self would follow the newer, psychological definition of the word. This ultimately leads people to see trauma as something of no merit—to be avoided at all costs and, when unavoidable, to be handled delicately and discreetly.
The reality is that trauma is a ubiquitous experience—something we all share. Dr. Mark Epstein, in his book Trauma of Everyday Life, goes so far as to assert that “trauma is an indivisible part of human existence. It takes many forms but spares no one.” This does not presume that everyone experiences trauma in the same way or to the same degree. For some, a traumatic experience is unique, isolated and identifiable, such as a car accident, the death of a loved one, or being assaulted. Others, though, may experience trauma in subtle or protracted ways—like chronic illness, abuse or poverty. The degree to which a person experiences these traumas will no doubt contribute to the trauma’s impact and influence on an individual, but at a basic human level, we can all resonate with trauma in our lives.
It should be recognized that accepting trauma as an inevitable part of the human experience in no way means that we should not condemn traumas that are perpetrated from person to person, nor should we dismiss the power that traumas have to disrupt and redefine a person’s life. A view put forth by Dr. Epstein on the matter is that “if one can treat trauma as a fact and not as a failing, one has the chance to learn from the inevitable slings and arrows that come one’s way.” When the shock of a traumatic event has given way enough that we may observe it and explore it, and when the individual is ready to learn about themselves through it, then trauma loses its power to diminish us. It can be difficult to imagine this way of thinking when we discuss traumas of a unique and severe nature, but it can be possible.
At the core of Dr. Victor Frankl’s Logotherapy is the idea that we can transcend our traumas and are in fact required to make meaning of them in order to become our ideal self. He began to develop his ideas before WWII, without knowing how they would be tested and his belief in them strengthened through his experiences during that conflict. Dr. Frankl found himself a prisoner of the Nazis after the start of the war. During that time, he was separated from his family, who were also imprisoned. He would lose his parents, wife and brother. Even after experiencing such atrocities as the Nazis committed against him and his people, he wrote the following:
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in
which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity–even under the most
difficult circumstances–to add a deeper meaning to his life.
At no time does Dr. Frankl ever absolve those who acted against him of their accountability for their actions. But he does not also validate the intention of destroying his life, which was their goal. Rather, he works to better himself and to focus himself through the lessons learned during such an unimaginable experience. Dr. Frankl believed that ultimately it is for each of us to make meaning of the events in our lives. It is when one is willing to practice such resolve that they can experience the oft-unnoticed side of the trauma coin—that of post-traumatic growth.
Tedeschi & Calhoun coined the phrase ‘Post-Traumatic Growth’ in 1995 to describe the phenomenon of those who gained newfound appreciation for life and/or purpose after their traumas. Dr. Frankl is just such a person, but so are many others who do not go on to renown. Like him, they use their traumatic experiences to impact their families, communities and the world in ways that seek to improve the lives of others. This begins with an understanding that what matters isn’t that a traumatic event has occurred, but how one chooses to engage with their traumatic experience.
In subsequent years there has been significant research into how one can find growth through trauma. A key factor for post-traumatic growth is connected to how one perceives oneself and, more importantly, how one is treated after a traumatic event. In his book What Doesn’t Kill Us, Dr. Stephen Joseph asserts, “if people are told that they are victims and need help, these conditions become a self-fulfilling prophecy”—illustrating the impact that the social paradigm can have on an individual’s recovery path. In a culture that is constantly avoiding the discomfort and upheaval of trauma, a great reminder about the value of trauma can be found in the words of trauma specialist Molly Birkholm. In her lecture on post traumatic growth, she declares, “we don’t get stronger, wiser and more resilient in spite of our adversity. We come stronger because of adversity.” This perspective lends us the opportunity to transcend the immediate impacts of trauma to a richer view of ourselves and our place in the world.
When people speak of their post traumatic growth experiences, they typically speak of growth in one or more of the following areas:
- Personal strength: developing an appreciation for how vulnerable we are in all times of our life and choosing to embrace rather than shrink away from this vulnerability.
- New possibilities: seeing the world through fresh eyes after a traumatic event “shakes up” our previous world and self-views.
- Cultivation of meaningful relationships: an experience of increased closeness to others, being reminded of their importance, and opening to how we can be of service to others.
- Spiritual change: reviewing our beliefs about purpose and place in the world.
- Appreciation for life: the reality check of our own fragility and mortality may lead us to seeing value where we once may not have.
There is no single way that one should experience this growth, no system that will define an individual’s progression through the stages the play out post trauma: victim to survivor to changemaker. There is only the support of one’s family and community that will provide the resources necessary to transcend trauma.
As previously stated, trauma can and often does interrupt our lives in profound and disruptive ways. For many, this disruption is not something they can navigate alone. Often the help of a single therapist is not enough. When a traumatic experience is significantly disruptive, it has impacts on our ideas of who we are, of how the world works, and how we relate to others. A therapeutic environment may be called for to fully help integrate and return from the impact of trauma.
Windhorse Community Services (WCS) operates from perspectives that are uniquely suited to trauma recovery. Working from a home rather than from a closed environment, the foundational belief is that within everyone there is a quality of ‘Basic Goodness’—a quality of inner intelligence and wisdom that resides alongside, but often suppressed by, trauma which can be roused and brought forward through relationship. A team of therapists trained and practiced in witnessing, reflecting and experiencing life joins with an individual in creating a safe and uplifted environment—prime to the process of reconnection to relationship with not just the world, but more so with oneself.
It must be said that accepting the universal nature of trauma and finding a path to post traumatic growth will not take away the pain of trauma. One may say that the pain of trauma is necessary for the process of growth to arise, just like the pain of exercise can be harnessed for improvement of the body, just as the urgency of our curiosities of life lead us to find answers (and more questions) about our place in the world. Through acceptance and support, trauma may open a door to growth, and even the pain can be diminished over time.
Trauma is ubiquitous; growth is not. Do not despair if you cannot find growth for every trauma, purpose and meaning in every suffering, for you will not. But hopefully, in knowing that there is a way and that others have seen it, there can be hope that one day you may find even a small expansion of yourself as you navigate your recovery from trauma. May you find some comfort in the words of another trauma survivor, Kurt Hahn, who founded many educational institutions, including the world renowned Outward Bound: “there is more in you than you know.”
Dave Dunlap joined the Marine Corps upon graduation from high school. He served as an Infantry Rifleman from 96-00. Earning the rank of Corporal and serving as a squad leader. While serving he was introduced to the notion of living according to a set of values. After completing his service, he returned home to Pennsylvania and attended the National Outdoor Leadership School for a 31 day mountaineering course. He then moved to Leadville Colorado to attend the Colorado Mountain College and graduated with an associates degree in Outdoor Education. After graduation, he worked with Colorado Outward Bound School for almost a decade. While working at COBS, he also continued his education and attended CU Boulder to complete a bachelors degree in psychology.
“When I set out on my adventures in Colorado I did it to teach technical skills. What I discovered in myself was a deeper passion for helping others find meaning and purpose in their lives.”– Dave Dunlap
COBS was granted funds to offer free courses for Veterans. Working these courses reconnected him with a family he hadn’t realized he had missed; and inspired him to pursue his masters. He moved to the front range of Colorado and attended graduate school at Argosy University in Denver. During this time he also joined Americorps and served as a VISTA volunteer with a community Veterans organization in Boulder county. Dave is Currently a Team Leader at Windhorse Community Services.