Trauma and its sequelae are likely the greatest challenge we face as individuals who have experienced them and as healthcare professionals who try to help. For decades and generations, post-traumatic experiences have been misunderstood, mislabeled, and misrepresented. It wasn’t that long ago when I found myself in a shouting match with a military medical healthcare individual who kept screaming at me, “There is no SUCH thing as PTSD!” It wasn’t that long ago when I listened to some of my education program cohort telling me my reactions to what I felt was professorial bullying were probably “cultural” and “well, you know, not Canadian-like.”
Ironically or may be because of all that, much of my practice today involves working with individuals who are trying to come to grips with the aftermath of a traumatic event. We’ve come a very long way in understanding PTSD as a psychological and physiological process. Our treatment protocols have improved both in detection and resolution. Improved but not perfect. While we have reliable interventions that can help in the areas of physical and mental health, we still fall short in the areas of organization recognition, compassionate healing periods, and eradicating the stigma that comes with acknowledging we suffer with PTSD.
In Michaela Haas’ new book, Bouncing Forward: Transforming bad breaks into breakthroughs, we have a hopeful message. It’s important to say at the outset that this is not a feel-good or pie-in-the-sky promise that good times are coming. Haas, a journalist and well-known author, has done deep research to pull together researchers passionate about the topic and the personal stories of recovery from trauma making the book delicious flow of intertwining narratives.
Recovery is an important factor in any discussion of PTSD but less discussed is the factor of remission. One study¹ showed that approximately 44% people who experience trauma do recover spontaneously. In the first 5 months, remission was 52% whereas later than 5 months it was 37%. People who experienced natural disasters have higher rates of remission than people who also were diagnosed with physical injury. Early treatment also affected the rates of remission in the positive direction. In other words, on-going symptoms of PTSD are connected to the amount of time that elapses from the trauma, co-existing physical illness, and if treatment is delayed.
Despite this, as Haas reports in her book, researchers Tedeschi and Calhoun note “90% of survivors report at least one aspect of posttraumatic growth.” That is, the process of going through these struggles resulted in positive change and a renewed perspective on their lives. Haas is careful to show in each of the personal stories that it is not an easy path to posttraumatic growth. In fact, it is a lifetime process of discovering that very strength that is quietly sustaining us – sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly. And Haas pulls together a remarkable community to speak to this process of growth.
Well known individuals like Maya Angelou, Coco Schumann, and Temple Grandin offer their experiences alongside others like a female medic who was the first prisoner in the Iraq war, a surfer paralyzed in a surfing accident, a young woman whose body doesn’t tell her it’s in pain. Their stories are far from saccharine or filled with angelic overtones; they are human in their frustration, honest about times of hopelessness, transparent about the dark alley and neighbourhoods in which they took residence. Better yet there’s no righteousness in their recovery because each one is clear that getting better is not a noun but a verb. Recovering moment-by-moment and not some fixed end goal.
Haas includes the strategies each person in her book used that helped them. It’s a huge table set with many different approaches that are physical, mental, and spiritual. And woven through all this are helpful conversations with researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun who specialize in the field of posttraumatic growth.
This is a book I highly recommend because in the face of all the struggles we encounter as we try to manage and work with posttrauma symptoms, it helps to know there are also supportive dimensions that can and are developing from these struggles. It’s also really important to be clear here (and somewhat sad that I even have to say this): posttraumatic growth does not take our healthcare or workplace organizations off the hook to provide assistance. The research is also clear that early detection and treatment are a factor to recovery. And perhaps the potential of posttraumatic growth can be encouragement for a more compassionate stance to all who suffer from PTSD.
¹Morinna, N., Wicherts, J.M., Lobbrecht, J. & Priebe, S. (2014). Remission from post-traumatic stress disorder in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis of long term outcome studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 34(3), 249-255.