On the night of March 6th, 1987, the ferry, MS Herald of Free Enterprise headed out from Belgian on its way to Dover, England. Unknown to the 459 passengers and 80 crew members the bow door had been left open allowing water to begin flooding in immediately after the ferry left the dock. Within a few miles from port the boat completely flipped on its side. Rescue crews responded at once but were unable to save everyone as 193 people died that fateful night. For the survivors their minds would be left with the harrowing images of a sea littered with dead bodies as they were pulled to safety.
Growing from the event.
This event, and the life changes for the survivors, was studied by psychologists to understand the affects of trauma on people’s lives. The general belief at the time was that people who experience such an event will struggle to work through the trauma they experienced. However, as the psychologists continued to follow the survivors through their lives they discovered something quite astonishing. Many of the people on that boat started to report that their lives were actually improved from having gone through this event. They were able to make sense of their lives in a new way and felt that the trauma they experienced actually brought them to a better place.
Steven Joseph was one of the researchers who worked with the survivors of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise. He was curious how the trauma would impact them but in his interviews with the survivors he started to notice this theme of positive re-framing. Some of the people were reporting changes in their lives that didn’t fit the narrative of post traumatic stress disorder. As they continued to work through the challenges of the event they also started to change in ways Joseph wouldn’t have expected.
In his book, Upside: The New Science of Post–Traumatic Growth, Jim Rendon talks about Steven Joseph’s discoveries.
Joseph was interested in discovering how positive reframing was working in those who survived the disaster. In his survey he included a single question about whether the survivor’s view of life had changed in a positive way or a negative way in the three years since the disaster. Though he expected some positive responses, he was amazed by the results: 43 percent said their view of life had changed for the better. Most wrote that they valued relationships and other people more, that they now lived life to its fullest, that they had more empathy, even that they were more driven to succeed (Rendon, 2015).
Two North Carolina scientists.
The people who are most credited with the study of post–traumatic growth are two psychologists from the University of North Carolina, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun.
They initially had started studying the lives of widows and how the loss of their partners had impacted them. Listening to these women talk about the struggles of losing their husbands they started to realize that for many of the women there were positive outcomes as well.
In their research they continued to see these changes emerge. Rendon speaks to this in his book:
As they spoke to more and more people, they began to see that traumatic experiences certainly did cause suffering, but suffering was not the end of the change wrought by these events. Suffering, in fact, was part of a much larger experience. It proved to be a kind of catalyst that pushed people to find new meaning in their lives (Rendon, 2015).
How to grow from bad events.
Tedeschi and Calhoun began to do more targeted research to discover how, exactly, these people were changing. As they dug through the existing research and interviewed more than six hundred trauma survivors, patterns began to emerge. They started correlating those responses, grouping like ones with others. Eventually they determined that people were reporting positive change in one or more of the following five distinct areas as a result of their trauma:
1. Increased inner strength
2. An openness to new possibilities in life
3. Closer and often deeper relationships with friends and family
4. An enhanced appreciation for life
5. A stronger sense of spirituality
In his book, Rendon quotes Tedeshchi:
“Growth is a rethinking, a reassessment of yourself and the world. You don’t need to go through that if everything still makes sense to you,” Tedeschi says. “If a person is like a building built to a high standard to withstand an earthquake, if the quake comes and the building is still standing, you are okay. But if the building suffers damage, it has to be rebuilt and the rebuilding is the growth” (Rendon, 2015).
It is clear that not everyone was following the narrative of PTSD or the outcomes of traumatic events. People were able to reframe their lives as a result of these events. What was beginning to take shape was a new understanding of trauma.
Trauma as change agent.
Before the ideas of post–traumatic change began to be studied trauma was seen as each traumatized person clawing their way through the pain and suffering to get back to their original self.
Rendon spoke with a trauma researcher, Rachel Yehuda. Yehuda has done many studies on people after traumatic events. Rendon points out that,
“…for a long time researchers and clinicians thought that the body and mind were stressed by trauma and that after a certain period of time they just went back to normal. They thought so in part because that is how the physiology of trauma was perceived” (Rendon, 2015).
As more people with PTSD have been studied a new understanding is beginning to emerge. Trauma, because of the intensity it can cause people, results in significant change for people who get through it. People, regardless of their response are never the same person.
Yehuda speaks to the inevitable change that can occur from traumatic events:
“Trauma causes change. There are a lot of opinions out there about how that change manifests, but you just don’t stay the same. That is a really radical idea,” says Yehuda. “You do recover in some ways, but that recovery doesn’t actually involve returning to the baseline. It involves recalibration towards something new, and PTSD is a way of describing that in a very negative light, and post–traumatic growth is a way of describing that in a very positive light” (Rendon, 2015).
How this shows up in my life.
In working with clients it is so easy to see their deficits and limitations. It is often a result of some childhood deficit. A parent was neglectful, abusive or just didn’t seem to care enough. The adults I work with are living out these painful limitations in their current relationships. The goal is to help clients remove these limitations. However, I find that in coming to grips with their painful past many clients actually grow beyond what was previously in their way. They start to see that they are more capable of compassion for themselves and to those around them. They become more committed to growth in their lives when they are opened to their own capacity for change.
I really believe in the human spirit to go beyond anything I can imagine they are capable of achieving. It is why I do the work I do; to help my clients obtain the greatest possible way of being in this world within their lifetime. I believe that we only limit ourselves by our beliefs and habits. There is never too much love, compassion and kindness available to bring out into the world.
When we begin to re-frame trauma and suffering from, painful anchors that weigh us down, to the opportunity of ascending to our best self, life can unfold in a different way. We let go of any blame or self-righteousness about our past and acknowledge that this momentary roadblock can be our greatest gift.
About the Author, Bryce Mathern LPC, Owner and Men’s Therapist at BrassBalls TenderHeart Counseling, Denver, CO
Bryce Mathern, LPC is always seeking to educate his clients with the latest and most impactful on human behavior research. When we understand ourselves better, we can react better to life’s ever-changing and always challenging circumstances, with bold authenticity. Read more articles here. If you or someone you know is struggling with trauma I encourage you to reach out.
Wishing You The Day You Need To Have!