Image this: you’re walking or driving to work, and suddenly, from the corner of your eye, you notice an SUV bearing down on you. It clearly doesn’t have time to stop, and you can’t get out of the way. The truck hits you, and you roll down a hill, banging your head on the ground. Will your life ever be the same?
I already know the answer, because this happened to me, while I was walking to the gym one January evening, and my life hasn’t been the same since.
Trauma happens to all of us. Motor vehicle accidents. Death in the family. Losing a job. I could and probably write an entire article about the various ways that life goes off-plan in an instant. But that’s not what you’re here for. At least, I hope not. This is a site about self-improvement, after all!
Trauma can affect us physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. There’s no avoiding life’s crises, and we usually can’t control the experience. But we can control how we deal with the experience, what it means to us, and, to a certain extent, how our lives evolve from that moment on.
After a traumatic experience, how have you coped? What choices did you make that helped or hindered your recovery? Did your experience become part of new sense of self, or did you try to deny the experience and pretend it never happened?
When we experience trauma, we have three options:
- Wallow in self pity
- Try to go back to square one, and act as if the traumatic event never happened
- Use the experience as an opportunity for improvement and self-growth, effectively making the experience a launching pad for something better
I believe in self-development, and that any experience can be an opportunity for growth. Also, my blog is about personal improvement, so we’re going to focus on Option 3.
How you perceive the traumatic situation is entirely up to you
Viktor Frankl, founder of the logotherapy school of psychology, believed that we have the freedom to define the meaning of any experience that happens to us. In other words, if you’re undergoing trauma, you have the opportunity to decide what it means to you! Some people see challenging experiences as a test or a lesson, others see them as hurdles to overcome. It’s entirely up to you to decide what it means, which is a lot of responsibility. But you can handle it!
Using Trauma as a Tool for Personal Growth
Based on my own experiences, I’ve created a list of positive ways to find meaning from life’s traumas, and how to use them as tool for self-development instead.
Take care of your immediate needs first
Personal growth does not happen in a vacuum. If you’re familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you’ll know that self-actualization is the fifth and final step, after all other needs are met. The first and second needs are physiological needs and safety, in that order, and it’s important to make sure you have those taken care of – at least temporarily – before you start to think about your emotional health and personal growth.
Take stock of what’s going on in your life
What absolutely must get done? What can be delayed, postponed, or cancelled? What can be delegated to someone else – temporarily or permanently? Clear your plate as much as possible so you can focus on your recovery.
Then, think about what you can do?
There’s a chance that you’ll have to sacrifice some of your independence, especially at first, and maybe forever. This affects your sense of identity (more on that, later). But, unless you’re in a coma, there should still be at least one or two – hopefully more – things you can do for yourself or for others. What are they?
Review your unrealized dreams
While this is useful anytime, it’s common to think about our bucket lists after experiencing trauma, particularly something that affects our physical health. What dreams have you left on the table?
Some of your dreams, like being an astronaut, may not be achievable. Others could be. Take stock of which ones you’d like to pursue later, and which ones you no longer care about. Can any of them be done while you’re recovering, or do need to wait until your life is back on track?
Don’t let your life goals fall to the wayside; keep track of those dreams, and find a way to prioritize them. Whether it’s taking a class, learning a skill, or just 10-15 minutes a day spent working on a novel, you can make progress on those dreams, which will add meaning to your life that wasn’t there before the trauma.
Allow space for your emotions
Every experience has the capacity to trigger an emotional reaction. What that reaction is varies based up on our temperament, past experiences, and expectations. These feelings may be immediate, but you may be one of those people who needs days – or even weeks – before they start to surface. Especially if you’re coping with physical trauma, those may take the forefront of your attention for a while; the brain can only process so much information at one time.
I don’t recommend spending the rest of your life wallowing in whatever feelings surface for you after a traumatic experience, but don’t suppress them either. Have you ever tried to pretend you weren’t feeling something, only to have it surface at the most inconvenient time? Giving space to your emotions acknowledges them without letting them take over. Sometimes, you just need a little time to feel sad, or angry, or jealous. Go watch Inside Out, if you don’t believe me!
Clarify what the trauma means to you
As mentioned earlier, you have the ability to decide, for yourself, what this experience means for you. The meaning of your experience will probably change over time, with different shades of significance in the days and weeks following versus the months and years to come.
This is a step that’s worth revisiting several times as you undergo the healing process, and periodically thereafter. It’s not unusual to see people post on social media, write a blog article, or create a memoire as part of their journey; sharing their experience adds another layer of meaning, and is one reason you see survivors become activists or healers in their own right.
Ask for help, if you need it
This is easier for some of us than it is for others, but learning to recognize when you need help, and how to ask for it are valuable life skills.
There’s no shame in asking for help, especially after you’ve experienced a traumatic event. But even without trauma, there are times when you need help. We all have strengths and weaknesses; leveraging each other’s strengths is part of what makes our relationships with others so valuable. They lean on us, and we lean on them!
Accept help from others, even if you didn’t ask
You don’t have to accept all of the help that’s offered to you, and you don’t have to accept help from everyone who offers, but there’s’ a graciousness and humility that comes from acknowledging we can’t do everything ourselves.
Similar to asking for help, accepting help graciously is also a valuable skill to have, and helps with building and maintaining your relationships with others. If a loved one was going through a difficult time, wouldn’t you want to help them, too?
Change is never easy, and when it’s forced upon you by events you didn’t anticipate, it can be even harder. Each of the new skills listed above – processing emotion, asking for help, receiving help – requires courage at some point or another. For most adults, learning any new skill takes courage, but it’s well worth the effort. These skills you’re developing will change the way you see and experience the world around you, and can give you a resilience do deal with future trauma with less effort and energy than the one that you’re experiencing now.
Be patient with yourself
While recovering from head trauma, I learned that healing in the first several months happens much faster than it does later in the process, and that healing is not a linear process. This was difficult to accept, but if you stop to think about it, is similar to other aspects of self development, like learning a new skill (hence, the “learning curve”).
In other words, progress is seldom linear. You will have days in which you seem to be standing still, and other days may seem like a set-back. Know that this is okay, and totally normal! Even physical healing is nonlinear; some things heal quickly, others take more time.
Take time off if you need it
Whether you’re dealing with a damaged body or wounded emotions, it takes a lot of energy to heal. You may have days when you feel burned out or discouraged, and not be capable of the personal development or even relating to others. It’s fine if you need to take a day or two to rest. Longer than that, and I recommend reaching out to friends, family, or professionals for support.
Be patient with your loved ones
Changes to your life impact the people around us as well, and our personal support teams rarely get the help they need. Especially if you need physical assistance from friends or family, they’ll have their own adjustments to make, frustrations to deal with, and may undergo a process not dissimilar to yours as they adjust to the impact your trauma has had on their world.
Stay flexible and adaptable
If you’ve read this far, chances are you’re interested in turning this into a positive turning point in your life. In what way? Will you pursue a new career, a passion project, prioritize your relationships over your work? These choices can lead to major changes in your life, with even more choices later on. Be prepared to navigate the fall-out not just from the trauma itself, but from the choices you make as you reassess your life afterwards.
Take time to assess how the experience has changed you
After my experience, I did a lot of research on brain injury, the recovery process, and the experiences of others. Early on, I noticed a common theme: after experiencing brain injury, the “old you” no longer exists, and is instead replaced by a newer version of yourself.
I believe this is true of all our traumas, big and small. Smaller traumas may lead to a new version of ourselves that is similar enough to the older version that we may not notice, but it still impacts who we are and how we deal with the experience impacts who we become.
Whether the new version of yourself is better or worse than the old version is debatable; you may like some changes more than others. The good news is that you have a lot of say in who you become. Being aware of this can help you make better choices as you develop into a new person, incorporating the trauma that you’ve survived.
Mourn the old you
Any major change, sought after or not, comes with a sense of loss. You’ll need time to acknowledge the parts of you that have changed, and are no longer part of your current life. Arguably, this is part of making space for your emotions, mentioned earlier, but this step is often unacknowledged and deserves to be called out in its own right.
Decide on your life direction
Undergoing trauma is not the only time we can review our life purpose and life goals, but it does provide an excellent opportunity to do so.
Thinking through everything you’ve learned, experienced, and taken time to reflect upon, where do you want your life to go now? Do you want to continue in the same direction, or choose a different path? Only you can know.
As you move out of the healing process and no longer need to develop skills to recover, you’ll find that there are new things you want to explore. Or perhaps you’ll discover you didn’t want to write that novel, after all, but instead want to make a short film`.
Allow your sense of self to continue to evolve, even after you’ve recovered from whatever prompted you to read this article. With all the skills you learned as you recovered from trauma, you’ll be better equipped for personal development, growth, be able to reinvent your identity without the catalyst of a catastrophic event.
Though difficult (if it was easy, we’d all be doing it), when life throws us a curveball, it’s possible to do more than just make lemons out of lemonade. Instead, take this opportunity as a chance to reinvent yourself, follow a path you hadn’t imagined, and live the dreams you’d shelved long time ago!