Gratitude & Growth

"Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us- and those around us- more effectively. Look for the learning." Louisa May Alcott

"Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us- and those around us- more effectively. Look for the learning." Louisa May Alcott

Fifi made the list! My good friend, Ashley, texted me and told me her 2-year-old son, who affectionately calls me "Fifi" mentioned me in his prayers. Not only did I get a mention but I was first (a spot reserved solely for his dad). Ashley and her husband are teaching Jack to be thankful. Each night, he lists off the people/things (inanimate objects) for whom/which he is thankful. They are cultivating character development in this little person. That is the most significant thing happening.  In addition, Jack's brain is forming neuronal networks that are building a sturdy foundation that will serve him well when he begins to face difficult and disappointing things in life.

Last week, I came across this article on gratitude protecting against PTSD with the tagline, "In the aftermath of trauma, gratitude helps us grow". As someone who specializes in working with trauma, my curiosity piqued. (I define trauma the way Dr. Tina Bryson does, "anything immediately and overwhelmingly difficult" which will be different for different people. What is traumatic for me, may not be for you, but it does not make it any less traumatic.)

Trauma rocks us to the core and shatters our sense of safety (hence, the definition: immediately and overwhelmingly difficult). It causes us to seek a new belief system as we try to understand why this terrible thing happened and what it means for our worldview.

Post-traumatic growth (PTG), developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, is the psychological concept that the transformation following trauma leads to "develop[ing] new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life" (Tedeschi).

Post-Traumatic Growth can provide a framework that trauma is not defining and a newfound hope can arise from the ashes of pain.

"Post-Traumatic Growth happens in the season after the trauma, when some people start to feel thankful to be alive, thankful that the trauma wasn’t even worse, and grateful for the chance to learn more about themselves," reporter Athena Dickau writes. Post-Traumatic Growth does NOT minimize or negate the trauma. This does NOT mean you must be thankful for the actual trauma.  It also is not to be misunderstood as the goal to achieve and bypassing necessary processing of the trauma. Rather PTG can provide a framework that trauma is not defining and a newfound hope can arise from the ashes of pain. 

In her article, Dickau highlighted a study conducted by researchers Julie Vieselmeyer and colleagues. The team sought to "discover whether gratitude can actually protect someone from the detrimental effects of witnessing trauma". They interviewed 359 students and faculty that were present or nearby during the campus shooting at Seattle Pacific University.

The results of the study showed that the individuals who already had higher levels of gratitude before the shooting were better able to turn their post-traumatic stress into growth. Dickau points out, "This is actually quite profound. It suggests that if we can help ourselves and others feel more grateful on a daily basis, we can actually prime ourselves to handle the trauma that life will inevitably bring."

If we can help ourselves and others feel more grateful on a daily basis, we can actually prime ourselves to handle the trauma that life will inevitably bring.
— Athena Dickau

Just like Ashley is teaching Jack to cultivate thankfulness we, too, must do the same.

Professor Robert E. Emmons defines gratitude as such: “Feelings of gratitude are anchored in two essential pieces of information processed by an individual: (a) an affirming of goodness or ‘good things’ in one’s life and (b) the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside ourselves.”

"So gratitude is recognizing that our life is a gift, no matter our circumstances and realizing that this goodness does not come from our efforts alone," writes Dickau.

As one study instructed participants, we also must "focus for a moment on benefits or gifts that you have received in your life. These gifts could be simple everyday pleasures, people in your life, personal strengths or talents, moments of natural beauty, or gestures of kindness from others. We might not normally think about these things as gifts, but that is how we want you to think about them. Take a moment to really savor or relish these gifts, think about their value, and then write them down every night before going to sleep.”

I would imagine that as gratitude deepens, you'll find positive responses in the areas that define Post-Traumatic Growth:

  • Appreciation of life
  • Relationships with others
  • New possibilities in life
  • Personal strength
  • Spiritual change

May we be people defined, not by our tragedies, but by our response to them.

{If you have yet to process your pain, my invitation awaits to sit and journey with you towards a healing transformation where meaning can be made of what has occurred. Please do not hesitate to contact me.} 

Tiffany Dang

Tiffany Dang, LPC, Austin, TX