Emotional Hangover [ih-moh-shuh-nl hang-oh-ver]: noun. The feeling after an emotional breakdown, often the  result of an argument, a deep sadness, an unfortunate loss, a trauma. Common symptoms include depression, sadness, crying, feelings of regret, fatigue, anxiety, feeling like a failure, fears about the future.

Ever been there before? Me too.

The human condition is to struggle, and just by virtue of living in an uncertain world, our lifetimes will undoubtedly be filled with painful traumas, tragedies, and heartbreaks. There are the obvious, familiar adversities like the death of a family member, divorce and custody battles, financial hardship and job loss, accidents and illnesses, and so on. But for our youth, severe emotional pain can stem from a variety of seemingly “smaller” incidents like the death of a pet, getting body shamed, being kicked out of a friend group or getting rejected by a potential employer. Many of these traumas leave us feeling emotionally depleted and utterly “hungover”.

Trauma (a deeply distressing or disturbing experience) is particularly disruptive because it shatters our most basic core beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. Things like:
-How benevolent people are
-How predictable events are
-How controllable the world is
-How vulnerable I am
-Who I am
-Who you are

No matter the source of the pain, the bottom line is that trauma can be absolutely debilitating. But, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

The research behind Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG), a relatively new topic under the umbrella of positive psychology, confirms that with the right circumstances and support, we can actually benefit in surprising ways from life’s most harrowing experiences. In essence, we are capable of more than just surviving in the wake of trauma. We are capable of thriving.

Post-traumatic growth can be defined as the positive psychological change that results from the attempt to find new meaning and resolve after a traumatic event. The event itself does not cause the positive psychological change, but rather what results from the shattering of a person’s fundamental beliefs, values, and understanding of themselves, others and the world. It is the realization that old meanings no longer apply, and the subsequent search for new ones that results in the psychological shift known as post-traumatic growth. The struggle to find new meaning in the aftermath of the trauma is crucial to positive psychological growth, as well as the acceptance that distress and growth can co-exist, and often do, while these new meanings are crafted (Tedeshi, 2004).

Different from the concepts of resilience, emotional toughness, or optimism, PTG involves not just the ability to resist and avoid damage from highly stressful life events, but the ability to adapt to the stressful event in such a way that there is not simply a return to baseline functioning. Instead, personal growth actually surpasses the pre-trauma level (Tedeshi, 2004).

The 5 Domains of PTG

So what does PTG actually look like? Individuals who experience PTG report positive changes in 1 or more of the following areas:

  • An openness to new possibilities or pathways not present before
  • A change (deepening) in relationships with others
  • An increased sense of one’s own personal strength
  • A greater appreciation for life in general
  • A stronger sense of spirituality

Ongoing research is being conducted about the specific factors and circumstances that contribute to such positive post-trauma outcomes. Below are excerpts from Upside by Jim Rendon, highlighting 3 strategies for transforming trauma into positive change.

1. Deliberate Rumination
The stories people tell about who they are and what their lives can and can’t be are tremendously important. They can trap us in a life that no longer serves us or they can open the door to something new and transformative. Crises have the capacity not only to upend those stories, but they can also be the catalyst that forces people to find new and often better narratives for themselves. The first step to developing a new narrative is deliberate rumination. This process is driven by the individual in an intentional and strategic way, and does not include wallowing or obsessing. Rather, when someone is deliberately ruminating, the individual is actively involved in thinking about how the event has impacted her life, what it means for her, and how she can live life going forward given the challenges that the event has posed. Deliberate rumination is a process of actively tackling the challenges the trauma has introduced and subsequently developing more beneficial interpretations of the event to assimilate into one’s personal narrative.

*NOTE: Negative ruminations, obsessive thinking and involuntary flashbacks are completely normal and appropriate stages of overcoming a crisis. The goal is to eventually shift into intentional and strategic patterns of thinking that allow for the development of new meaning.

2. Leaning On Others
There is a rich body of research tying social support to growth. From cancer patients to survivors of natural disasters to war veterans, a supportive structure of family and friends makes growth possible. But not just any kind of support will do. The most effective support comes from those who are willing to allow the individual to dictate their needs. The friend or family member shouldn’t push to talk about things the person is not ready for, nor should they avoid potentially painful topics. It’s a sensitive and highly nuanced process, but the ultimate goal should be to cultivate the individual’s sense of autonomy. The kind of support that emphasizes dependence, that tells the person what to do instead of enabling and supporting them to choose their own path can be counterproductive. Perhaps most important is consistency. An outpouring of social support directly following a crisis is most common, but it is in the extended weeks, months and years that individuals benefit and grow most from a reliable support system.

3. Express Yourself
Research shows that writing can be remarkably helpful for people recovering from emotionally charged events. While verbally expressing thoughts and feelings is also valuable, expressive writing removes the uncertainty in face-to-face communication and eliminates the potential of being misunderstood, judged or dismissed. Hundreds of studies on expressive writing have shown significant psychological and physiological benefits like reduced blood pressure and improved grades. Even expressive writing for just 2 minutes, 2 days in a row has been shown to have some benefit. One of the primary keys is that this particular kind of writing is for the subject only, and is not to be shared with anyone. This seemingly simple process works because traumatic experiences tend to remain in our awareness until they are either made sense of cognitively or they simply fade with time. Making sense of a crisis through writing—understanding it and coming to terms with what it means—is far more efficient than simply waiting for it to fade away. By writing about difficult experiences, we are forced to translate them into language. Subsequently, the individual can assign it meaning, some level of coherence and give the event a structure and place in their lives. Representing the experience with language is a necessary step toward understanding the experience.

For a deeper dive into PTG and the 6 keys to transforming trauma into positive change, pick up a copy of Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth.

Not everyone grows from trauma. But those who do are able to see that our most significant trials and tribulations create space for hope, growth, and change. If you’ve ever experienced growth after a crisis, share your experience in the comments below!

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