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When Adversity Strikes: Personal Growth after Trials

When Adversity Strikes: Personal Growth after Trials

The old adage “no pain no gain” is apt to describe personal growth, a state of self-advancement that encompasses psychological growth, and subsequently spurs positive changes in one’s life. Life is not a smooth journey. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, unique to humans, is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it allows us to perform highly complex functions such as acquiring language, thinking and planning; on the other hand, if leveraged upon wrongly, it can perpetuate tensions within ourselves as well as amongst people, landing us in difficult situations. One good example is the geopolitical tensions building up around the globe fuelled by politicians with their own personal agenda.

STEERING THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX

Some stressful events like the death of a loved one, are completely unavoidable. Life is not easy nor is it going to get any easier, but we can make living easier. Some people continue to live life to the fullest and lead an even better life after experiencing adversity, highly stressful events or traumatic experiences. Others would give up on life and go on a downward spiral towards self-destruction. Our prefrontal cortex allows us to go either direction – living life optimally and learning how to achieve personal growth after adversity will make living life easier and better.

Take cancer patients for example. When given the diagnosis, especially for late stage cancer, many understandably react in shock, anger and denial. This is an extremely stressful and traumatic event for anyone. However, if they can get through to the acceptance stage, many of them are able to use their life crises as an opportunity for change and to live life more fully in the present – time is no longer a given for them but a finite gift, which is fast evaporating. Some of the changes these terminally ill cancer patients make, and the resultant personal growth they experience can include:

  • improved communication as well as valuing and forming deeper relationships with loved ones and others;
  • a deeper appreciation of the simple things in life, such as the sight and sound of nature around us, going to the market and having a cup of tea;
  • having the freedom to choose what one wishes to do, prioritising what needs to be done and discarding trivialities and pettiness;
  • willingness to take risks and explore the unknown, such as through travelling with an open mind and a sense of curiosity;
  • being non-judgmental and willingness to help others in need and relate to them with empathy and compassion; andincreased personal strength, determination and wisdom.

CHOOSING WHERE TO LAND

Redefining Life Values after 40

Hopefully, most of us would not have to go through the stress and ravages of a traumatic event in order to experience personal growth. No one asks for adversities and when we are confronted with such disruptions in our lives, how can we make the best of such experiences? When we go through and rise above them, these difficult experiences broaden our minds and hearts and help us grow in ways we would never have imagined, such as gaining autonomy and mastery, developing positive relationships and self-acceptance, and having a sense of purpose in life. They change our perspectives of ourselves, of others and of the world.

Notwithstanding, attaining personal growth through these experiences does not necessarily lead to a commensurate reduction in distress, pain or suffering – one who has lost a loved one may still cry every day, yet one is able to find new meaning in life by volunteering their services for the less privileged. Thus, it is crucial that the resultant emotional aspects from the traumatic events be acknowledged and accepted as part of one’s journey towards personal growth.

A YOUNG MOM’S JOURNEY TOWARDS PERSONAL GROWTH

The vignette below illustrates a mother who shared her own experiences of finding personal growth and making positive changes in her life as well as in her son’s life.

“…I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t and didn’t want to accept it. Did the doctor get the diagnosis wrong? Cerebral palsy? I mean having a child was supposed to be the most beautiful thing, right? I was devastated and fell into depression. I just couldn’t take care of Aidan anymore for the next few months. I was at a loss. Each morning, I just didn’t want to get out of bed. Thankfully, I had my husband and mother who helped care for him. One day, my mother said to me: ‘When I look at Aidan’s eyes I see sorrow and sadness, as his own mother has abandoned him.’ That shook me up. I mean, what was I thinking? I was supposed to be his mother! I felt bad, very bad. But it is going to be different now. I am going to be Aidan’s protector from now on. Either I never get out of bed or I go out there and do some good for my son as well as for others. I started caring for Aidan with compassion. I mean it is no fault of his, right? I started researching on appropriate therapies for him…looking at special needs schools and planning for his future as well as mine. I needed to do it for him and needed to do some good. I wrote a blog and started a support group for parents with children with cerebral palsy. I now also work with parents who are going through grief. I never thought I would believe in myself and find new meaning again. It is unimaginable now at this point but I am laughing and feeling joy! Of course, there are tough times, like how I wish Aidan could be a normal kid, and I do cry every now and then. But we all have to move on with life, right? I have to accept that things happen, and life is never completely fair. I talk to people a lot as they give me a lot of advice and emotional support. Now I take it one step at a time and appreciate every moment with Aidan and my family. While I used to fight over small things with my mother like which eatery to go to, now I realise life is too short to be wasted on such matters. Looking back, I have come a long way. Somehow I made a choice and found strength and wisdom…”

Every one of us goes through stressful events all the time, and the relative stress levels that we each perceive and experience can vary. Sources of stress can run the spectrum of being late in sending your children to school, being told off at work by your boss, having arguments with your partner, moving to a new house or even hearing about disasters like earthquakes and terrorist attacks happening around the world. Stressful events are a part of learning in one’s life, as long as one is able to reflect upon them and learn from them. Although some can manage stress better than others, minor daily stresses would not usually result in personal growth. However, if one finds it harder and harder to cope with stressful situations daily, then it may point to some underlying issues that need exploring and resolving.

FIGHT, NOT FLEE

Coming back to traumatic events: So how does one work towards personal growth after adversity? It is of course not an easy process but will be a very rewarding one when one is able to process the experience. The ability to learn from experiences should, and can be honed from as young as possible. Parents would do well to help their children cope with life by teaching them life and problem-solving skills and through this, help them on their journey towards personal growth. This is more useful than trying to shelter them from the real world. As an individual, helping another in difficult times and seeing him or her grow stronger and more resilient can be just as, if not more fulfilling. The helper gains in several ways, such as from the insights and perspectives of the other, forming closer relationships and appreciating more of his or her life. Of course, it is just as important to acknowledge one’s limitations and to be able to come to terms with situations that cannot be changed.

PURSUING AND NURTURING PERSONAL GROWTH

Below are several points with brief vignettes of individuals describing how personal growth can be facilitated:

  1. Talk to someone who can listen to you with empathy, without being judgmental. We all have an implicit memory which encodes perceptions, emotions and bodily sensations. When experiencing a highly stressful or traumatic event, our implicit memory works to process the event, but at the same time, the fight-flight-freeze response that the event automatically triggers, floods the body with the hormone cortisol, a chemical that prevents the formation of a different type of memory, explicit memory, which would have allowed us to make sense of the event through factual and episodic encoding. Thus, one can become “stuck” after a traumatic event, as he/she continues to grapple with shock while the experience itself remains largely unprocessed or at all, leaving him/her in a state of confusion. Narrating the event, with a trained professional like a psychologist if necessary, helps us make sense of what has happened, and facilitates the awareness needed to manage and regulate our emotions better.

“I FELT LISTENED TO AND UNDERSTOOD. AS I RECALLED AND SPOKE ABOUT THE TRAUMA, THE INTENSITY OF THE NEGATIVE FEELINGS FIRST INCREASED, BUT THEN DECREASED OVER TIME. I FELT CALMER AND MORE COMPOSED, THANKS TO MY THERAPIST WHO WAS THERE FOR ME AND HELPED NORMALISE HOW I FELT…AND WHAT I THOUGHT. HE TAUGHT ME TO LOOK AT THE SITUATION DIFFERENTLY AND ALSO TAUGHT ME MANY COPING SKILLS. I REALISED I WAS NOT INSANE.”

“I MADE SO MANY FRIENDS IN THE SUPPORT GROUP THAT I AM NOW LEADING A BUSY SOCIAL LIFE. I DISCOVERED THAT I WASN’T ALONE IN THIS. THEY SHARED THEIR EXPERIENCES, AND THAT REALLY HELPED ME PROCESS MY OWN EMOTIONS…I FELT EMOTIONALLY AND SOCIALLY SUPPORTED.”

  1. Many stressful or traumatic experiences can be life-changing and disrupting. They force us to confront many notions such as death, isolation, vulnerability, responsibility and meaning in life, and challenge the beliefs and assumptions we have held all along. It is therefore vital to re-assess our beliefs and values about ourselves, and about the people around us, as well as the society at large.

“I WAS BROUGHT UP IN A CERTAIN WAY, BEING PRIM AND PROPER AND ALL THAT…BUT WHEN I HAD TO GO THROUGH THE DIVORCE, THAT CHANGED HOW I LOOKED AT THE WAY LIFE IS TO BE LIVED. I REALISED I DIDN’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT ANYMORE…IT’S MY LIFE, NOT ANYONE’S ELSE.”

“I MADE SO MANY FRIENDS IN THE SUPPORT GROUP THAT I AM NOW LEADING A BUSY SOCIAL LIFE. I DISCOVERED THAT I WASN’T ALONE IN THIS. THEY SHARED THEIR EXPERIENCES, AND THAT REALLY HELPED ME PROCESS MY OWN EMOTIONS…I FELT EMOTIONALLY AND SOCIALLY SUPPORTED.”

“I NEVER EVER THOUGHT ABOUT DYING OR DEATH, MAYBE IT WAS KIND OF A SUBCONSCIOUS AVOIDANCE. BUT WHEN I WAS SO CLOSE TO DEATH IN THE CAR ACCIDENT, IT MADE ME CONFRONT MORTALITY DIRECTLY. IT TOOK ALMOST A YEAR FOR ME TO ACCEPT THE ACCIDENT, AND I STOPPED ASKING WHY IT HAPPENED. I HAD TO RE-LEARN MANY BASIC SKILLS AS I HAVE LOST THE USE OF MY LEGS, AT THE SAME TIME, IT ALSO TAUGHT ME HOW TO APPRECIATE SO MANY THINGS THAT I USED TO TAKE FOR GRANTED. I AM A MUCH MORE POSITIVE PERSON NOW.”

  1. Many individuals like to stay in the comfort zone and stick to the same routine even though their lifestyles may not be healthy. A traumatic event however, can be a catalyst for change. Engaging in different activities after adversity, like exercising, volunteering, searching for new information and learning a new skill, promote positive changes by attributing meaning to experiences and helping one gain a sense of personal control over the physical and psychological domains.

“THE BEST THING THAT CAME OUT AFTER I HAD A HEART ATTACK WAS I CHANGED MY LIFESTYLE COMPLETELY. I EAT HEALTHY…I EXERCISE…AND RESEARCH ON ALL THE RISK FACTORS. I ALSO EDUCATE OTHER PEOPLE. I AM NOW IN CONTROL OF MY HEALTH…AND MY LIFE.”

“I WENT TO A LOVELY ART EXHIBITION. I WOULD NEVER HAVE THOUGHT OF DOING THAT IN THE PAST. IT MADE ME REALISE THAT LIFE IS A LOT MORE THAN JUST STAYING IN MY ROOM AND FEELING SORRY FOR MYSELF. LIFE IS TOO SHORT.”

  1. Personal growth can only be achieved if one reflects on the trauma-related information, and integrates it into the new psyche, bringing about a shift in old paradigms. It can be easy to lapse into the old self when one actively denies, distorts or dismisses the new trauma-related information. The following vignette illustrates this clearly. Thus, it is crucial to take ownership of one’s life and actively works towards a more productive one after a stressful or traumatic event.

 

“I WAS VERY SHOCKED AND SAD WHEN MY GIRLFRIEND LEFT ME. BUT I DON’T THINK I DID ANYTHING WRONG…SHE WAS JUST TOO SENSITIVE. I WASN’T REALLY SERIOUS WITH THE OTHER GIRL…JUST FLIRTING AROUND. WHAT’S WRONG WITH THAT?”

At the other extreme, one may “over-correct” and become dysfunctional if he/she chooses to modify beliefs and assumptions in the most negative way, which can lead to a downward spiral, into a life of rigidity or chaos. The result is a life artificially restricted and severely limited by fear, as one’s intellectual, emotional and psychological growth is curtailed.

“I JUST COULDN’T BELIEVE THAT MY HANDBAG WAS SNATCHED! THIS WHOLE WORLD IS JUST SO DANGEROUS NOW… EVERYONE IS DANGEROUS…NO ONE CAN BE TRUSTED. I BETTER NOT GO OUT ANYMORE…DEFINITELY NO MORE TRAVELLING.”

Balance is key. It is important to reflect on the adversity and make corrective but realistic changes to our pre-existing beliefs and assumptions so that new changes are accommodated, skills are learnt, and wisdom is developed in the process. Moreover, the new changes can now be seen in a new light – as positive rather than negative.

“AFTER THAT ACCIDENT, I STOPPED DRIVING FOR A YEAR. BUT NOW I AM SLOWLY PICKING UP DRIVING AGAIN. I MEAN DRIVING ON A BUSY ROAD IS NOT GOING TO BE 100% SAFE, SO I AVOID THE BUSY TIMES FOR NOW AND DRIVE AT A SLOWER SPEED. LOOKING BACK, I WAS A LITTLE RECKLESS BEFORE. I HAVE DEFINITELY LEARNT A LOT FROM THIS EXPERIENCE…I AM ALSO MORE MATURED NOW”

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR STORY?

Everyone has the potential to experience growth and personal development following adversities. The impact of some of these adversities can feel like a crushing blow, and will take some time to process. However, it is also through the struggle with such events in life that we discover new strengths within ourselves, revitalise our relationships with others and appreciate better life’s purpose and meaning. It is also assuring to know that the struggle is not in vain, for dialectical forces are always at work – with loss comes fulfilment and with suffering comes growth. We might be familiar with some of the victorious stories that got written and published, e.g. Corrie Ten Boom, Helen Keller and Nic Vujicic, to name a few. There are countless more that are not written, and they happen to ordinary men and women who turn adversities into opportunities for personal growth.