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The secret to healing from traumatic events...

After hearing countless stories of bad things happening to good people, I do not believe in the phrase "everything happens for a reason". To be honest, I kind of hate it. Random tragedies happen daily for no reason. Just by being human we are all prone to experience traumatic events.

However only approximately 20% of people that experience a trauma go on to develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from that experience. Which means 80% do not. A lot of focus is given to the 20%, for good reason, however we can learn from the 80%. What is it about those people that help them recover?


The most effective way people overcome is with meaning making. Meaning making is exactly what it sounds like, making meaning out of the bad event that happened. When people feel there was purpose behind what happened or that something worth while can come out of this experience they are far more likely to be able to process that trauma and move forward.

I've been thinking of this lately after organizing an event for breast and ovarian cancer prevention. At this event we had two speakers come to share their stories of surviving cancer. These women are every day people that went in for a check up and ended up having cancer. They now give talks to teach people about prevention, warning signs and treatment. They were diagnosed over twenty years ago and have been cancer free since.

I was sitting in the audience thinking wow, this happened over twenty years ago and they remember every detail of the day they were diagnosed and it was clear to me this was a traumatic event in their lives. They may not be emotionally affected by this any more, however it has shaped their career path and their desire to help others. They took this traumatic event and gave it some meaning by trying to help others prevent going through the same thing. If they asked themselves, what was the point of getting cancer they would not have an answer and perhaps grow resentful, but they created their own meaning in this case. This is what is referred to as post traumatic growth, PTG.

It is a very healthy response of coping with the aftermath of traumatic events. Like in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), these women were reliving their trauma daily, by retelling their stories over and over, very similar to the way a war veteran may share over and over the same story that happened in combat to anyone willing to listen. The difference in these two examples is how you use that trauma in the present moment.

It is connecting that story to the present moment for a purpose.

Vietnam veterans first started this in a big way by being the first to really treat trauma. When they returned they felt this war was for nothing, society did not support them and were left with a huge sense of this horrific trauma they witnessed being all for nothing. They formed support groups for each other to help one another cope with their traumas. They had PTSD, sure, but they also very much had PTG.

While it is important of course to draw attention to PTSD especially in this time we are in, it is equally important to recognize the human ability for resilience and healing. No one that goes to see a doctor for a broken arm wants to hear the doctor say "yes but how wonderful you have three resilient limbs!" Of course not. But if you ignore the three other limbs how can one function and ultimately heal that arm?

It will show us the way to heal ourselves and help those along the path. Just by being human, we are prone to resilience and healing. We don't have to just survive when we have the potential to thrive.

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