What can we learn from times of trauma and adversity?
Trauma and adversity are things that most of us have to face at some point in our lives, and few of us get through life without experiencing difficult times at some point.
We may go through serious illness, for example, or divorce, bereavement, financial hardship, loss or betrayal in some way. It could be any number of things.
It’s not always easy to find something positive in such experiences – but the benefits when we do find them can be immense. If I think about the tough times I’ve navigated in my own life, I feel fortunate that I can now look back and feel thankful for aspects of those experiences.
They’ve opened doors to opportunities I may not otherwise have recognised. I could never have said that at the time – but now I can see how those traumas have shaped me and what they’ve taught me. They’ve enabled me to look at life through a broader lens.
Allowing trauma and adversity to bring positive change
This article in Time magazine highlights research carried out in the 1980s into how people change in fundamental ways after trauma. The majority of people interviewed in the research said their lives had changed in positive ways – after healing from the initial pain.
And that raises a question for me:
Is trauma essential in unlocking our further potential as individuals? Or could we access the same degree of personal growth without going through all that pain?
I believe trauma and adversity has been vital in my own life in making me who I am today – and I like how those things have shaped me. I think trauma can give us insight and wisdom that we may not otherwise gain. I also realise it may be different for each one of us.
Recovery from trauma can give us the ability to help others in different ways.
The sudden death of my previous partner in 2003 absolutely broke me – and yet it led to a profound and positive transformation for me. I learned so much about myself and about life and about holding on when everything seemed to be crumbling around me.
It gave me an inner strength I don’t think I would otherwise have. I learned to reframe some of the things I knew I would never understand. It led me to set some big new goals because I felt I had nothing to lose. Those things in turn led me to look outward, beyond myself, and to look with fresh energy and focus at what I could do in the world.
In addition, by finally learning to accept my loss I was able to find more meaning in the experience I’d had.
Best of all, though, it has enabled me to help others going through similar trauma, and show that it is possible to come out the other side.
I don’t think any of this would have easily occurred if I hadn’t experienced those difficult times.
I’m reminded of the following examples of ordinary people who’ve taken a traumatic experience forward in positive ways, for the benefit of others:
Viktor Frankl – if he had not endured appalling conditions in German concentration camps during World War II, he may never have written “Man’s Search For Meaning”, a book that has since helped millions of people.
Lisa Potts, teacher – if she hadn’t been seriously injured in a machete attack in 1996 while defending the nursery school children in her care, she may never have set up Believe 2 Achieve – an organisation that works to enhance self-esteem and personal development in children and young people.
Fraidy Reiss – if she hadn’t endured years of violence and rape after being forced into child marriage in the USA, she may never have set up Un-chained At Last helping other girls and women escape such situations and rebuild their lives. You can watch her TED talk here.
Jamie Andrew, mountaineer – if he hadn’t lost both hands and both feet to frostbite in 1999, he may never have since inspired thousands of others to find ways to overcome difficulty and to believe that nothing is impossible.
There are countless stories of people who’ve been through deep trauma and adversity and who now use that experience as a positive and powerful force for change. We may not all have been through violent or life-threatening trauma, but the majority of us will experience big challenges at some point, in one way or another.
What can we take forward into the future?
The world’s current biggest challenges – climate change, coronavirus, political extremes, oppression, hunger and more – are causing huge problems for many people, not least relating to fear and uncertainty. There isn’t always a clear path through difficult times, but one thing is certain: we can all look for ways to get through, to find things we can learn, and to use those insights not only to help ourselves but others too.
Reaching back into past traumas is not always easy and, depending on the trauma, it may at times feel impossible. But reflecting on how we’re different because of the difficult times – and on what we’ve done since – often enables us to see positives.
And when we’re able to identify and harness those fresh insights , we have something to take forward into the future.
Looking for positives doesn’t negate the depth of trauma or pain that we have experienced, but it allows us to direct it into something good. We can all be agents of change, and when we do that, the benefits are both personal and global.
The actions we take can make the trauma count.
Related article: Can one person really make a difference in the world?