Making meaning from adversity (DW#994)
Nov 18, 2021
The way we derive meaning from life through story telling is really important when we are going through challenging times.
We may have heard the term "PTSD" or post-traumatic stress disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that develops in some people who have experienced or witnessed a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.
Of course, it is natural to feel afraid and overwhelmed during and after a traumatic situation. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger or to avoid it. This "fight-or-flight" response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened, even when they are not in danger.
It is important to remember that not everyone who lives through a shocking, dangerous or traumatic event develops PTSD. In fact, most people will not develop the disorder.
Many people go through challenges and adversity and come out stronger and better versions of themselves. This process is called post-traumatic growth and is something which is less talked about than PTSD but it is just as common.
One of the main ways that people grow through challenges is what meaning they attach to the event.
Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, who are experts in post-traumatic growth, have identified five different ways in which people can potentially grow after a trauma.
The first is that your relationships can strengthen; second, you can go on to discover new purposes or paths in life; third, you can discover a newfound inner strength; fourth, you can become more spiritual; and last but not least, you can feel a renewed appreciation for life.
Studies have found that people who rather than ignoring traumatic events or hiding them, chose to reflect on the meaning and purpose behind the events and wrote about them, found that they didn’t need to go to the doctor as much, suffered from fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression and had a stronger immune system, among other benefits.
When recounting their experiences, the study participants used "insight" words in their stories such as "I know," "because," "work through" and "understand", indicating that they were attempting to make sense of their traumatic experiences through their writing. Researchers concluded that writing exercises allowed them to take meaning from their experiences and thus facilitated their post-traumatic growth.
So try this for yourself. When going through adversity or challenges, try reflecting on the event through expressive writing, and see if you can derive meaning and purpose from distressing events.
Some questions to consider are: How did you manage to go through the challenging situation? What skills and resources did you draw upon? What strength did this bring forth - something that you may not even have realised that you possessed?
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