February 22, 2018 / 12:12 PM / 7 months ago

For some, traumatic life jolts lead to profound, personal growth

CHICAGO (Reuters) - (The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

Some of my favorite stories on the retirement beat are not about retirement at all. Rather, they are about people who have taken sharp turns later in life to new careers, often driven by a desire to find greater purpose and meaning in their work and in their lives.

I admire these people deeply, and have written dozens of stories about them. And over the years I noticed a pattern: many of these transformations began with a traumatic life experience. I came to think of these high-voltage bolts out of the blue as jolts — painful events that stop people in their tracks and then thrust them forward to positive change. That is the subject of my new book, “Jolt: Stories of Trauma and Transformation” (Post Hill Press).

“Jolt” tells the stories of people who have survived the worst life can throw at them. The loss of a child or a spouse. A debilitating stroke, or cancer. Terror attacks and natural disasters. Plane crashes. Blindness.

Trauma has driven them to ask piercing questions about their priorities and values. They need to make sense of what has happened to them, and find a meaningful way forward. The answers they find inspire profound and lasting personal growth.

Many jolt survivors become more compassionate toward the plight of others - they develop a vastly expanded sense of empathy that extends far beyond family, friends, and their immediate community. Often, they pursue missions to help others or to make things right in the world. Some find that their relationships grow deeper, or seek a stronger spiritual or religious dimension in their lives.

How is it that some people manage not only to survive jolts, but emerge from the experience stronger? What is it like to undergo such painful, profound change? How do these transformations occur?

Psychologists have been asking these questions for years. In the mid-1990s, researchers named the phenomenon post-traumatic growth. One pioneering researcher at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, psychologist Lawrence Calhoun, says it is important to understand that post-traumatic growth is more than resilience in the face of trauma. The big difference is change.

“Resilience is when you get punched, stagger and then jump right back up,” he said. “Post-traumatic growth is different: When you stand back up, you are transformed.”

Calhoun’s research suggests that many people dealing with trauma report undergoing some amount of personal growth as a result of the experience. The change may be subtle and internal, or it can be expressed through more obvious external action in the world.

CREATING A NEW LIFE

Jolt survivors may have found new ways to live with a sense of balance and purpose, but that does not mean their pain has been vanquished.

“I always thought if I lost a child, I wouldn’t be able to stop screaming,” said Liz Alderman, of Westchester County outside New York City, who lost her 25-year-old son, Peter, in the terror attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. “But the reality is you can’t keep screaming - your throat closes up; you give yourself a headache. You have two choices: either you kill yourself literally or figuratively, by crawling into bed and never getting out, or you put one foot in front of the other.”

Jolt survivors build new lives around the traumatic event, and they move on, creating a new life outside of their pain.

In her deep grief after 9/11, Liz felt a compulsion to help her son, “to do for him,” as she puts it. She felt as though a limb had been amputated, but her body did not really know it was gone. And she felt a deep need to do something positive. “It was this burning thing. I couldn’t define it at the time, but it was a need to do good.”

That impulse led Liz and her husband, Steve, to create the Peter C. Alderman Foundation in early 2003. The foundation helps to create and run mental health clinics in post-conflict societies around the world that desperately needed services - and to do it by training local healthcare professionals immersed in local culture to do the work.

The goal is to improve the quality of life of survivors; create healthier, peaceful populations; and influence the political will to put mental health on the global health agenda.

The work began with a clinic the foundation opened in 2005 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Today, the Aldermans operate seven mental health clinics in Cambodia, Uganda, and Kenya. The foundation also hosts an annual Pan-African Conference on Psychotrauma for healthcare professionals, postgraduate students, university faculty, and staff members of mental health-related nongovernmental organizations in Africa. It has provided free training to nearly a thousand mental health workers.

“The presence of growth doesn’t lead to a commensurate reduction in stress or suffering,” said psychologist Calhoun. “Just because a bereaved parent has more compassion for others or changes careers, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t still miss her child and cry every night. Our best guess is that growth and distress are independent.”

Fortunately, most of us will not suffer a major traumatic event like those I describe in “Jolt.” But trauma is a universal part of life - we all suffer emotional crises, illnesses, the death of family members and friends. The experiences of trauma survivors do offer life lessons for all of us - how we can become more altruistic, empathetic, and appreciative of life - and how we learn to get through our own life jolts, large and small.

Editing by Matthew Lewis

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