I have considered myself to be broken for just about as long as I can remember. And, in the year that has just past, who among us hasn’t been traumatised and frightened and – let’s be honest – just a little bit broken? And so on the days when everything is just too much, we look at that, at our reactions, our feelings, and we consider ourselves to have failed.
But have we? In the course of a trauma (and if this past year doesn’t qualify as a trauma then I genuinely don’t know what does), research shows that the vast majority of people will exhibit symptoms of traumatic stress – the anxiety, the depression, the shower crying. A 2002 study by Engelhard et al, for example, looked at traumatic reactions following the collision of two passenger trains in Belgium that left eight dead and 12 seriously injured. They found that in the early days as much of 97 per cent of those who experienced the crash exhibited traumatic stress symptoms.
However, the vast majority will make a full recovery. For instance, studies by Johannesson et al of survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami found that 72 per cent were termed resilient – they adapted to their experiences and over time returned to normal levels of functioning.The human spirit is, however, tremendously habitual – Hudson et al (2017) reported a surprising level of stability in people’s sense of wellbeing over a long period of time. Together then, these findings tend to suggest that, ultimately, when the bad or the good thing has been processed, the majority of the population will eventually return back to where we were before the trauma landed itself in our laps.
It’s important to point out here that, in order to experience post traumatic growth, we kind of have to be broken. We humans are not good at changing our minds about things and so we will stick to our world view, even if that world view tells us that we are not capable, that we are too sensitive or too damaged. We need a massive impetus to get us to re-evaluate everything.
Like a pandemic.
A significant predictor of us experiencing post traumatic growth, is simply the knowledge that it is out there. That it is a possibility for us. We tend to have a narrative around brokenness – that it represents some kind of failure, that by being broken we have proven ourselves to be inadequate, less than.
What if that’s wrong? Post traumatic growth, research shows, is less likely among those who will not look at the entirety of their situation. Pollyanna-ish positivity is all very well, but, if we are really to take the worst thing that has happened to us and find something good in it, it is not enough. Post traumatic growth requires us to look at the entirety of our situation. To say, “Well. This sucks.” And then to do something with that.
People who have experienced trauma show significantly higher levels of empathy. They are also more likely to help others. People who have experienced trauma show faster cognitive processing than their non-traumatised peers when they are exposed to a threatening environment.
It is hard to talk about post traumatic growth without sounding like you are minimising the trauma that preceded it. Let me be clear – if I could take away the trauma of my past, I would. But I can’t. I can only move forward.
So, if you, like me, suspect that you might be broken, there are some things I would like you to do. First, have a good cry. (You don’t actually have to, but if you need to, I’m giving you permission). Acknowledge the awfulness of your situation. And then look at what you have survived, notice and pay attention to the strengths that you have displayed in making it through this situation. And if the best you can manage is “I brushed my hair today”, that’s fine. We will do this a step at a time. It’s important to attend to your own strengths. Attention is like a dial that turns up the volume on the neural signal. And this is something we want to make habitual – a habitual noticing of your own awesomeness.
Then look for the positives – what have I gained by being in this situation? Again, this is not easy. But when we focus on the positives, we not only calm our stress response, but we also increase our problem solving abilities. Use deliberate rumination. This is categorically not worry. Worry is not helpful. When you feel worries beginning, do not indulge, slap them down. Deliberate rumination is when we sit down with the purpose of considering our situation and the emotions that it triggers. Counselling is wonderful for this. As is expressive writing.
Being broken feels terrifying. Acknowledging our brokenness feels more terrifying still. But being broken can also be the first step to being something far stronger than you have been before.
Dr Emma Kavanagh is a psychologist and author of How to Be Broken, published in eBook by Orion Spring and out now