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.
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.
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).