Most of us think about trauma as just about the worst thing that can happen to us. And for many, it is. Even if you’ve survived trauma, you still may be dealing with its physical and emotional aftermath, which perhaps includes emotional eating. How, then, can trauma ever have an upside?
In “How trauma can change lives—for the better,” Jim Rendon, author of Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, says yes, indeed, it can (TIME 8/3/15, p. 29). Therapists and the general public have long been schooled in the notion that trauma is terrible and nothing more, he says, one that changes peoples’ lives for the worse and stays with them to death. Post-traumatic stress disorder, with its nightmares, hyper-vigilance and flashbacks, can be frightening to experience or live with in a loved one.
What, then, is science telling Rendon that makes him believe that trauma sometimes can be anything but a negative experience? He says that “an estimated 75% of people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime” and that, while many report negative effects, down the road, others report positive changes—greater inner strength, increased intimacy, and a “reorientation” in life toward more fulfilling goals. In short, over time, the pain of trauma can help people “change for the better.” Rendon maintains that “Growth begins with healing from trauma.”
He also says that growth and transformative change are based on the premise that people seek and receive help. Sadly, many trauma survivors don’t recognize themselves as having been trauma victims and, therefore, forgo clinical treatment. They’re too scared of opening up old wounds or too ashamed of what happened to them, even when they were innocent victims. Moreover, when trauma occurs, their pre-trauma mental health determines how they’ll react to and heal from it.
I’ve seen people do exactly what Rendon says: survive trauma and go on to change their lives—and the lives of others—for the better because of it. This happens when: women and men who are raped go on to become sexual abuse counselors and victim advocates, parents of murdered children put their hearts into changing gun laws and increasing access to mental health counseling, and when people hurt by drunk drivers work to educate the public about drinking and driving. If you’re a trauma survivor, consider how both trauma and healing might change your life for the better. Then, even if you’re afraid, get the treatment you need.