How trauma and difficulties can sometimes be the springboard to greater well-being
I see it as part of my job to encourage the possibility of transformation that can arise from suffering, rather than pathologising life’s adversities. Though I originally trained as a clinical psychologist, the more I work with staff, volunteers and activists, the more I consider myself as a humanitarian psychologist, moving away from pathology towards resilience.
Humanitarian work is indeed full of pitfalls and frustrations; plus it does not necessarily offer much stability. That’s why building internal resources to deal with the proverbial shit that hits the fan is crucial.
This has little to do with positive thinking, to which admittedly I am rather allergic. There are times when things are bad and there is no “think positive” attitude that helps out of it. Even trying not to think about problems does not help: ever heard about the famous psychology experiment where people were asked *NOT* to think about a white bear? If I asked you to do the same now, just pausing for a minute and noticing what is on your mind, what are you thinking about? Probably a white bear. So when one of my favourite bands sings that “the sorrow grows bigger when the sorrow’s denied” they have a point. Positive thinking breeds frustration and denial breeds more sorrow.
Then what helps? What helps is the old Apple adagio “Think different”. That helps.
But how to think different as an aid worker? Often we start out young and brave by wanting to change the world and one mission after the other life takes its toll and we may end up cynical and burnt-out, feeling rather lonely, with no time on our hands to think, let alone “think different”. Do we recognise ourselves in this?
Nevertheless I think that this unusual career choice is also full of great and meaningful opportunities that can transform us, making us more humane, compassionate and at the end of the day happier (because that’s what we all want beyond any grandiose plans to save the planet).
This is where the concept of post-traumatic growth can play a role in our life. It certainly did in mine, allowing me to learn that adversities can make us better, rather than bitter. We all have big or small wounds that we carry within, a traumatic event, a personal crisis which left us shattered. The word trauma itself comes from the Greek meaning wound. No matter how much we play down its impact (as aid workers we must be strong, right?), experiencing scarring (and scaring) experiences is part of the human condition. Trying to glue together the pieces as they (we) were before may be yet another frustrating experience.
So how do we allow ourselves to be touched but not crashed by the difficulties of being a humanitarian? I think the concept of post-traumatic growth can offer some insight into this.
Wait. I’ve heard of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) you may say, but what is Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG)?
The concept was introduced by clinical researchers in the 1990s to illustrate how trauma can sometimes be the springboard to greater well-being. Previously the amazing account of concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl also showed how facing one’s own limits, life’s tragedies and possible death offers the essential opportunity for finding meaning in life.
Stress, burnout and trauma can become a wake-up call for aid workers to reflect on what our minds are fixed upon. They can open the way to developing more self-compassion, awareness, acceptance and love. This does not deny the impact of trauma or emotional exhaustion, rather it brings what we too often label as “psychological disorders or conditions” back into the natural cycle of life.
This alternative view of trauma not only resists the tendency to medicalise human experience, but also, and more importantly, places responsibility for the recovery back in the hands of those who have experienced the trauma themselves (Stephen Joseph).
Stephen Joseph, professor of psychology and trauma expert, highlights three existential themes at the core of post-traumatic growth:
- Life’s uncertainty
- Personal agency
Post-traumatic growth recognises that life is uncertain and that things change. This amounts to a tolerance of uncertainty that, in turn, reflects the ability to embrace it as a fundamental tenet of human experience. This is one of the core reasons why in my opinion every pre-deployment training could benefit from offering aid workers a copy of Pema Chödrön’s book Comfortable with Uncertainty.
Another theme at the centre of post-traumatic growth is psychological mindfulness which reflects self-awareness and an understanding of how one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours are related to each other, as well as a flexible attitude towards personal change. Finally post-traumatic growth highlights the importance of personal agency, which entails a sense of responsibility for the choices one makes in life and an awareness that choices have consequences (Joseph, 2011).
Mindfulness is thus central to building resilience, cultivating meaning and watering the seeds of post-traumatic growth, rather than those of post-traumatic stress. In this respect I think NGOs and humanitarian professionals could find it very valuable to explore mindfulness meditation as a preparation to life in the field, as a support and as a way to approach what comes their way in a mission, and as a tool to be comfortable with uncertainty in the field and beyond.
This post was inspired by a recent book that I read by Stephen Joseph What Doesn’t Kill Us: The new psychology of posttraumatic growth . Joseph grew up in Belfast during the “Troubles” and speaks from a place of personal experience, as well as academic research.