Veterans' Anguish and Post-Traumatic Growth

There's been a lot of talk lately about post-traumatic growth. Why should post-traumatic stress and all the accompanying angst be the only game in town? It is possible to grow through trauma; right? Yes and ... well, here goes. There is a tendency to say to people who are suffering emotionally: "Cheer up!" "Look to the bright side." "Stay positive." And so on. During an unbearable rupture in my life my sister said: "Joe, it's not always going to be this way." How did she know? I loved and trusted her, so what she said mattered. She knew something that, in my abject state, I had lost track of. And I breathed easier, if ever so slightly and temporarily.

A gnarly fear we have is that painful emotional states are never going to change. I'm twisting in the wind and I'm doomed to remain stuck here, in the dark, with no light at the end of the tunnel. So my sister's comment provided needed perspective, if not instant gratification and relief. In this way it was unlike "Just think positive" "Look to the bright side" and "It could be worse, you know." These comments fly in the face of our emotional reality and can invalidate what others are feeling and sting quite a bit. "Whadya take me for, a fool? It hurts!"

Some approaches may claim they're not about simply thinking positive and happy thoughts when you're feeling bad. But they can come off that way. Many who've endured trauma can end up thinking it's their fault for feeling as they do. After all, the logic would go, they don't have to be feeling this way, they could get out of it but they choose not to. Not only is this a perversion of post-traumatic growth, it compounds the agony and is tragic and unethical.

Growing through traumatic emotional pain is not simple at all. It takes multiple factors working in concert. First we need the capacity to endure and observe our emotional experience. Repeated trauma erodes these critical capacities, so the abilities themselves need repair. We need to learn to "stand" things as we come to "understand" them, and visa versa. This can develop with skills training, meditation, qigong, yoga, focused somatic awareness and other integrative practices.

But at the heart of re-growing these capacities is a safe, respectful, relational field. It can be with a friend, a therapist, a fellowship, a community, or a small support group like at Coming Home retreats. These are permeated by an atmosphere that does not judge but rather welcomes and accepts, unconditionally. At the Coming Home Project, we've learned that such optimal environments for connecting are also ideal for healing and for learning, helping veterans and family members open to new perspectives.

In such an unpressured, supportive environment, and with expert instruction and practice in awareness skills, we come to feel safe enough to allow unresolved traumas and anguish to resurface, at our own pace. We make an unconscious calculation really: In this setting opening up will not render me dysfunctional. It might feel overwhelming and scary, it might hurt, make me feel guilty, ashamed, enraged or crushingly sad, but I unconsciously calculate that I can bear it, with the support of those around me and with a newly developing ability to manage strong emotions within. In time we experience the value in unburdening ourselves.

Unlike what Dr Carl Castro wrote recently, our experience shows that we don't leave the "underlying" elements to one side as we first "quell" the emotional pain. The practice of self-regulation and emotion modulating skills on the one hand, together with the power of the loving community, on the other, create a healing alchemy that permits the emotions that have been dissociated in the interest of physical and psychological survival to emerge safely in a "corrective" environment that disconfirms our fears. The reparative cycle continues, as the sense of relief engenders greater internal confidence that such painful experiences can be productively encountered and "grown through." The various factors work in concert, not separately.

Slowly we learn to see, bear, welcome and enjoy the tender mercies that we have been unable to notice in our chronically benumbed or overwhelmed state: the laughter of our children, the helpfulness of our spouse, the song of the birds and the smell of tree sap. We come to hold the sorrows and joys of life in the same hands. Growth indeed. But don't think it's a snap. And don't think it's impossible. "Cheer up and think positive" is not the way forward. It takes the loving heart of community, skilled steady helping hands, and the courage to paddle, for us to experience real post-traumatic growth and to come back to life.