Category Archives: Posttraumatic Growth Articles

Specific Ways In Which The Brain Can Physically Recover From Severe Trauma

TO FIND OUT ABOUT MINDFULNESS TRAINING CLICK ABOVE

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I have previously written articles on how early life trauma can adversely affect the physical development of the brain leading to, for example, psychological difficulties in adulthood such as finding it hard to control our emotions and finding it difficult to cope with stress (eg click here).

I have also written about how the brain can, to some extent, physically repair itself (eg click here) by a process known as NEUROPLASTICITY.

In this article I want to take a more detailed look at how neuroplasticity might work to enable our brains to overcome the physical effects on it of our childhood traumatic experiences.

We now know that the brain’s circuitory is not, as used to be thought, ‘hard wired’, but changes over the course of our lives, INCLUDING ADULTHOOD, as a result of new experiences. Specific ways in which these physical changes to the brain might occur in adulthood include :

– NEUROGENESIS

– SYNAPTIC PLASTICITY

– SYNAPTOGENESIS

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BELOW : DIAGRAM OF A NEURON AND ITS CONNECTIONS.

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Let’s consider each of these in turn :

Neurogenesis:

Studies on rats have conclusively demonstrated that, over the course of their adult lives, they can grow new brain cells (neurons) which has the effect of changing their ability to process information. However, it is still not certain whether the same process occurs in humans – further research needs to be conducted.

Synaptic plasticity :

This refers to the fact that a process takes place in the adult brain whereby connections between neurons (brain cells) become strengthened and enhanced. Many studies have confirmed this beneficial process.

Synaptogenesis :

This refers to the process by which NEW connections are formed between neurons (brain cells). Studies show the process definitely occurs in animals, and it is likely that it also occurs in humans.

TRAINING THE BRAIN IN ORDER TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF NEUROPLASTICITY :

Practicing particular activities has been shown in studies to strengthen connections between the brain cells (neurons) in the specific brain region which is involved in the execution of that task.

The therapy MINDFULNESS takes advantage of this, improving our ability to relax and conquer stress and anxiety (click here to read my article on mindfulness).

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A famous study showing how neuroplasticity works involved looking at London taxi drivers who trained intensely for many years to learn the layout of the streets of London. By the time they had completed the training, the grey matter in their HIPPOCAMPUS (the part of the brain which deals with navigating and spatial awareness) had SIGNIFICANTLY INCREASED IN DENSITY.

TO FIND OUT ABOUT MINDFULNESS TRAINING CLICK ABOVE

TO FIND OUT ABOUT MINDFULNESS TRAINING CLICK ABOVE

David Hosier BSc Hons: MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

 

 

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Resilience : Distract, Distance and Dispute

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Those of us who have suffered significant childhood trauma, research has clearly indicated, tend to be, on average, less well equiped to deal with stress in adult life (this can be, in certain cases, due to the adverse impact the experience of trauma in early life has had upon the physical development of vital brain structures involved in responding to stress – click here to read my article on this).

However, all is not lost because research is now beginning to show that PSYCHOLOGICAL RESILIENCE is something that can be learned.

Individuals who are resilient are more able to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties, and, in some cases, not only survive very traumatic experiences but actually develop as human beings, grow and flourish in response to them (in fact, this is a new area of psychological study called POSTTRAUMATIC GROWTH – click here to read my article about this).

Benefits of being a resilient individual include :

– being better able to manage emotions arising from experiencing negative events

– being more able to cope with traumatic events

– being more able to cope with everyday stress

– are more likely to regard problems as manageable

– are more able to turn negative events to their advantage

– are more likely to think of ways in which negative events may actually sometimes give rise to new opportunities

– are more likely to perceive problems as challenges and take positive action to solve them, or at least to limit the damage that they might do

– experience fewer adverse physical effects of stress (e.g. in relation to blood pressure)

STRATEGIES TO IMPROVE OUR PSYCHOLOGICAL RESILIENCE :

1) KEEPING A DIARY – research has demonstrated that people who write about their negative experiences (eg in a diary or journal) are, on average, more able to cope with them than those who do not. This is thought to be due to the fact that organizing and structuring one’s thoughts ALLOWS US TO MENTALLY PROCESS THEM MORE THOROUGHLY which, in turn, is believed to diminish the negative emotional impact that they may have on us.

2) DISTRACT, DISTANCE AND DISPUTE :

a) DISTRACT – it is known that doing nothing but sit and ruminate about a negative event almost invariably makes us feel worse. It is usually better, therefore, to distract our thoughts away from the negative event (although, of course, it is never possible to be completely successful at this and we need to accept that thoughts of the negative event will continue to drift in and out of our consciousness).

Very simple techniques can be used to mentally distract ourselves, such as concentrating on an external physical object (this technique is often used in the meditative practice known as ‘MINDFULNESS’ – click here to read one of my articles on this), counting backwards in 3s down from 100, playing computer chess etc. It is important for us to use these distraction techniques as soon as possible because, in general, the longer we ruminate over a particular problem the harder it becomes to stop doing so.

Distraction works because it is all but impossible to think about two different things at once.

b) DISTANCE – this technique refers to keeping in mind that just because we interpret a situation in a particular way by no means implies the interpretation is accurate and reflects objective reality. In other words, just because we believe the interpretation is true, does NOT mean it is true.

Clinically depressed people, for instance, tend to interpret events far more negatively than would generally be considered to be objectively warranted.

In order for us to help ourselves to distance ourselves from the effects of negative events we can also pose certain questions to ourselves such as the following :

a) What things happen that are worse than my situation?

b) Who is worse off than me?

c) How can I interpret what has happened to me in a more positive way?

d) Despite the situation I am in now, what are the good things that still exist in my life?

e) Will what has happened matter in 10 days/10 weeks/10 months/10 years?

As well as asking ourselves the above questions, it can also be very helpful to think of someone we know who is resilient and good at dealing with life’s problems. We can then ask ourselves how s/he might manage a situation similar to the one we are in and then try to do likewise. Psychologists call this technique MODELLING.

c) DISPUTE – I have already stated that when we are depressed we tend to interpret events more negatively than is reasonably warranted. Psychologists sometimes refer to this tendency as suffering from AUTOMATIC NEGATIVE THOUGHTS (ANTs).

When we have such negative thoughts about certain situations we need to start getting into the habit of disputing/challenging them and trying to think of more positive ways of interpreting whatever it is that we are having negative thoughts about (this technique underpins a therapy known as cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT – click here to read my article about how CBT can help us to overcome our negative thinking patterns).

BENEFIT-FINDING :

The term ‘BENEFIT-FINDING’, in this context, is used by psychologists to refer to how resilient individuals are sometimes able to identify new, positive opportunities that can arise when a seemingly negative event occurs. An example might be losing a job, but, in response to this, starting a business which becomes very successful.

In fact, it is definitely worth remembering that positive opportunities can arise from the most unpromising set of circumstances and doing so will help us to manage difficult periods in our lives.

RESOURCES :

 

a) HELP WITH RESILIENCE (PSYCHOLOGYTODAY.COM)

 

b) Develop powerful resilience MP3 – click here

 

 

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Posttraumatic Growth – Techniques to Help Keep Remaining Symptoms of Trauma Under Control

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I have stated before that just because we have entered the phase of posttraumatic growth, this does not mean symptoms of trauma have been completely eradicated. Therefore, in order to be able to maximize the potential of our posttraumatic growth, it is very useful to know about techniques to manage re-emerging symptoms resulting from our experience of trauma, so that they interfere with our recovery as little as possible.

THE TECHNIQUES :

So, if, during our recovery/posttraumatic growth, we feel our symptoms are re-asserting themselves, we can employ the use of the following techniques:

– avoid interpersonal conflict (eg do not allow ourselves to be drawn into energy sapping and demoralizing arguments)

– talk to others about how we are feeling

– take as much time as possible for relaxation (eg gentle exercise,meditation, warm bath)

– indulge in as many enjoyable and pleasurable activities as possible, WITHOUT FEELING GUILTY ABOUT IT (see the activities as a form of necessary therapy)

– treat ourselves with compassion and do not blame ourselves for the effect the trauma has had on us

– keep to a routine; this is very important as it gives us a sense of predictability, control, safety and security

– make use of any social support systems as much as possible (eg friends, family, support groups). Research shows that those with a strong social support network in place cope better with the effects of traumatic experiences

– remember that many individuals who experience significant trauma find that ,once they have come through it, they have gained much inner strength and have greatly developed as people with a much deeper appreciation of life than they had before the traumatic experience/s occurred

– try not to avoid situations which remind you of the original trauma, where at all possible,as this is an effective way of overcoming the fear associated with such situations; avoidance keeps the problem going

– keep reminding yourself that human beings are extremely resilient; many people throughout the ages have been through appalling experiences yet have become stronger people as a result

– it important to remember that seeking professional help is not a sign of weakness or failure

Note : the above suggestions are based on advice given by the Academy of Cognitive Therapy.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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Posttraumatic Growth – Reconstructing The Life Story We Tell Ourselves

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We make sense of our lives by telling ourselves a story about it – however, this does not mean the story we tell ourselves reflects reality, not least because how we act and behave are often motivated by unconscious processes of which, by definition, we are unaware.

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Those who have suffered abusive childhoods very often grow up to believe that they are a ‘bad’ person (click here to read my article in which I explain why this is). Usually, this is the case because they are telling themselves an inaccurate life story (for example, part of the story they tell themselves might be : ‘I deserved to be badly treated as a child because I am a bad person’).

However, in order to recover from the effects of a traumatic childhood, and to start to enter a phase of posttraumatic growth, we need to adjust the story we tell ourselves; this can be achieved by understanding that our bad treatment in childhood was not our fault and that our adult behaviours, which might have been highly self-destructive, have their roots in our childhood experiences.

So, to slightly extend the example above,let’s suppose that the story we have been telling ourselves to make sense of our lives boils down to :

‘I was badly treated as a child because I am a bad person. My adult behaviour confirms that I am a bad person.’ (Old story)

HOWEVER :

once we understand and make sense of our traumatic experiences, what has happened in our lives takes on a whole new meaning, allowing us to reconstruct our life story to, for example :

‘The bad treatment I received as a child was not my fault. Problem behaviours that I have developed as an adult, resulting from my traumatic experiences, are understandable and forgivable. How I have been feeling and behaving as an adult is a NORMAL REACTION TO ABNORMAL EXPERIENCES. (New adjusted/reconstructed story we need to tell ourselves about our lives to allow posttraumatic growth to take place)

This new understanding of what has really happened in our lives is often a source of great relief and we need to ensure this enlightenment becomes a FUNDAMENTAL part of the new life story that we tell ourselves.

Changing our view of our life story in this way will NOT mean we suddenly become completely free of emotional distress; however, it can mark a point at which we can start to recover, and, with sufficient posttraumatic growth, become a much stronger and, indeed, thriving person.

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The Main Elements Of Posttraumatic Growth

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Many people, after suffering a terrible trauma, find that, once they have got through it and started to recover from its damaging psychological effects, they eventually reach a stage whereby they are able to use their adverse experiences to develop them as a person in highly positive ways that benefits both themselves and society at large. This has been termed by psychologists posttraumatic growth (click here to read an earlier article I have written about this).

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After experiencing trauma comes a slow process of recovery (assuming effective therapy is sought); the length of time recovery takes will depend both upon the type, intensity and duration of the trauma, as well as the age the individual was when s/he experienced the trauma, and also the affected individual’s personal characteristics, temperament and genetic make-up.

Once the person who experienced the trauma is able to manage his/her painful and distressing emotions more effectively, finds memories of the trauma less difficult to cope with, and is able to function reasonably well on a day to day basis, a transition can start to take place in which the person begins the process of moving on from recovery into posttraumatic growth. Ideally, this period of growth and development should be guided and facilitated by an appropriately qualified and experienced therapist.

The process of posttraumatic growth involves taking stock of what happened and analysing its significance. The American Psychological Association identify ten key elements that the process involves :

1) re-establishing meaningful relationships with other people

2) accepting that change is an inevitable part of life

3) setting goals and starting to move towards them

4) taking decisive action

5) working on developing a positive self-view

6) learning from the past

7) good self-care

8) developing an optimistic outlook

9) seeking out opportunities for self-discovery

10) seeing crises as challenges rather than as insurmountable obstacles

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Childhood Trauma – Steps to Recovery

childhood trauma and stages of recovery

childhood trauma and stages of recovery

It is important to remember that, no matter how severe our particular experiences of childhood trauma were, people can, and do, recover from such experiences if they undergo an appropriate form of therapy ; cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT (click here to read my article on how CBT can help) for example, is now well established by research findings to be a very effective treatment.

In analysing the recovery process from childhood trauma, it is possible to break it down into seven stages ; I present these stages below :

RECOVERY STAGES :

1) The first very important thing to do is to stop seeing ourselves as abnormal because of the effect our childhood trauma has had on us, but, instead, to see our symptoms/resultant behaviours as A NORMAL REACTION TO ABNORMAL EVENTS/EXPERIENCES.

It is very important to realize that it is highly probable that other people would have been affected in a very similar way to how we ourselves have been affected had they suffered the same adverse experiences that we did.

Coming to such a realization is, I think, important if we wish to keep up our self-esteem.

The kinds of symptoms and behaviours that childhood trauma can lead to are examined in detail in my book ‘The Devastating Effects Of Childhood Trauma’ – see below.

2) A very therapeutic effect can often be achieved by opening up about our traumatic experiences and how we feel they have affected us by talking to others we trust about such matters.

3) If at all possible, it is important that, during the recovery process, we are in an environment in which we feel safe and secure, and which is as stress – free as possible.

4) It is also extremely important that we try to resume normal everyday activities and interpersonal relationships as soon as possible, even if this requires some effort at first. Indeed, the research suggests recovery is very difficult if we do not re-establish human relationships. Also, we need to try to build some structure into our daily lives, as this provides a foundation of stability.

5) We need to accept that we may need much more rest than the average person – this is because the brain needs time to recover. In relation to this, getting the correct nutrients (click here to read my article on this) and sufficient sleep (I needed far more than 8 hours during my recovery) is also very important.

6) We also need to realize that while our experience of trauma entailed a great deal of suffering, many people not only recover from childhood trauma but develop as a human being in extremely positive ways as a result of it ; this phenomenon is known as post traumatic growth (click here to read my article on this).

 

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7) Therapy should be seriously considered as there are now many studies which provide extremely solid evidence that therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be highly effective. There are many other therapies and self-help strategies, too; I examine these in my book ‘Therapies For The Effects Of Childhood Trauma’ (see below).

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How Posttraumatic Growth Relates to Coping Strategies

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It is possible, once the worst of the distress caused by trauma is over, to enter a period of posttraumatic growth (click here to read my article on this) in which the experience of our trauma can be used to POSITIVELY TRANSFORM US.

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How successful we are in achieving posttraumatic growth is significantly tied up with the coping strategies we employ in the aftermath of our traumatic experiences.

There are two main types of coping strategy ; these are :

1) APPROACH ORIENTED COPING (this strategy involves either changing the situation or managing the emotions we feel in relation to the trauma)

2) AVOIDANCE ORIENTED COPING (this strategy involves ignoring the problems and difficulties we are facing in as far as it is possible and distracting ourselves from them.

Much research has been conducted in relation to the relative effectiveness of these strategies and, as most of us would expect, it has been overwhelmingly shown that, over the long-term, approach oriented coping strategies are superior and lead to much greater posttraumatic growth.

Unfortunately, however, one of the key symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is that those who suffer from it have a very marked tendency to avoid anything connected to the trauma that they have experienced.

Avoidance coping strategies are not all bad and are likely to have some short-term benefits in many cases, such as helping to protect us until we are ready to confront the trauma which has affected us. In the long-term, however, denial and avoidance are unlikely to lead to posttraumatic growth.

Short-term avoidance can, then, be healthy as it can reflect the fact that the traumatic event was overwhelming and could not be immediately processed. indeed, in referring to the trauma that has been experienced people often use terms like, ‘it’s too big to take in’ or, ‘i can’t accept this has happened ; it can’t be real.’ etc.

However, if avoidance goes on for too long it can prevent the person from working through their problems and the emotions which relate to them. Recovery can be blocked, preventing posttraumatic growth.

It is therefore very helpful, when ready, to move on from using avoidance oriented coping strategies to using approach oriented coping strategies. Using the latter involves accepting what has happened, processing it and working through the emotions the trauma has given rise to. In short, it involves trying to manage the situation in which we now find ourselves.

choosing the direction of our lives after trauma

TWO TYPES OF APPROACH ORIENTED COPING :

1) TASK FOCUSED

2) EMOTION FOCUSED

Task focused coping involves simply working out and implementing as many practical solutions to the problem as possible. This will vary widely from one set of traumatic experiences to another.

Emotion focused coping involves managing our psychological distress.

How we perceive our situation will dictate which of the above two coping strategies we use. If we perceive that positive change is possible and within our control we are likely to use task focused coping strategies. If, on the other hand, we regard a change in our situation to be impossible, we are likely to take advantage of emotion focused coping strategies.

Often, because of the effect the trauma has had on how we think, we may falsely believe there is nothing we can do to improve our life, whereas, looked at objectively, there is. For those who feel this may apply to them, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can be extremely helpful (click here to read my post on CBT).

One very important emotion focused coping strategy is to seek social support; such support may come from family, friends or professionals. By talking through our situation with others in our social support system we can gain new perspectives, new insights and new understanding which can lead to us positively transforming the meaning that our experience of the trauma has for us. This, in turn, leads to posttraumatic growth.

The quality of the social support we receive is more important than the quantity and it is ESPECIALLY HELPFUL WHEN IT HELPS TO MOTIVATE US TO START TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR OWN LIVES.

Also, the better we are able to express our emotions relating to our trauma within our social support system, the more our posttraumatic growth tends to flourish. Intense emotions such as FEAR, ANGER, SHAME, GUILT and RAGE can be VERY DESTRUCTIVE if we do not allow ourselves to talk them through and finally let go of them. Indeed, hanging on to such feelings is extremely likely to BLOCK RECOVERY. Our social support system (especially good professionals) can facilitate our letting go of such feelings.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Recovery of Repressed or Buried Memories of Abuse

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There has been a long-standing debate about the reliability of recovered memories of trauma and abuse.

The psychologist Loftus made made a distinction between Type I and Type II traumas. Type I traumas refer to a single event, whereas Type II traumas refer to those which were repeated and ongoing. It has been argued that Type I traumas become indelibly seared into conscious memory, whereas Type II traumas are susceptible to being repressed.

Loftus also puts forward the view that, in general, memory tends to be unreliable. She stresses that memory does not work like a tape recording, but is instead a less than perfect reconstruction of events. Loftus theorizes that memories may be distorted through factors such as fears, wishes, fantasies, social context and extraneous recollections. However, research suggests that highly significant and central events ARE remembered accurately – it is the less significant details of the event which are prone to distortion.

For example, somebody who witnesses a shooting is hardly likely to erroneously recall it as a stabbing; however, details such as the appearance of the perpetrator are far more likely to be unreliable.

Another psychologist involved in research relating to repressed memory recovery, Yapko, suggests that some recovered memories of trauma and abuse may be false as they were placed into the person’s mind, either wittingly or unwittingly, by a therapist. This may be due to incompetence, personal influence, a wish to prove a ‘pet theory’, a loss of neutrality, convincing the patient they must recover their buried memories in order to get better, or by focusing too much on the past at the expense of the present and the future. Despite the views of Yapko, however, there is little solid evidence that therapists can inadvertently create clinically significant false memories in their patients. It is worth repeating that memories of highly significant, dramatic and emotionally charged events overwhelmingly tend to be accurate.

STUDIES RELATING TO RECOVERY OF REPRESSED MEMORIES :

A study by Loftus focused upon females with substance misuse disorders who were undergoing treatment as psychiatric outpatients. They were interviewed about their memories of sexual abuse and it was found 19% of them claimed that they had forgotten their abuse for a long period of time before they eventually recovered the memories.

Another study, by the psychologist Schatzow, of 53 females, found that 28% of them had significant memory loss of trauma.

The psychologist Williams, too, conducted research into repressed memories. His study made use of hospital records of females, 38% of whom had no memory of their documented abuse.

HOWEVER, these studies focused largely on details of memory and Type II trauma, rather than on single dramatic, central events (Type I trauma).

THEORIES RELATING TO WHY SOME REPRESSED MEMORIES EVENTUALLY RE-EMERGE :

The psychologist Terr has put forward the view that repressed memories are most likely to be recovered once the danger has passed and the person who experienced the trauma has staretd to feel relatively safe. This may be, for example, in the consulting room of a trusted therapist or in the context of a safe marriage or other significant relationship. Often, too, the recalled memory will be connected to a trigger or cue which relates to the buried traumatic memory closely enough to reactivate it.

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I hope you have found this post of value.

Best wishes, David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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