How Trauma Can Actually Help You and Others

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The Challenge: When we go through trauma, we might feel like the damage will last forever.

The Science: Trauma can actually help us grow and in turn to help others with similar tragedies.

The Solution: Embrace all your experiences as you propel yourself into even better ones.

A t one point or another in our lives, we will all face a great personal tragedy like the loss of a loved one or a debilitating health scare. In the moment, these traumatic experiences elicit highly negatively feelings and even suffering. But in the long run these tragic moments may ultimately be ones that challenge us to change our worldview and make us more empathetic. Science indeed supports that our wounds, when healed, might actually make us stronger and better at helping others who experience a similar tragedy.

In a study entitled, Survivor Mission: Do Those who Survive Have a Drive to Thrive at Work?, researchers examined police detectives with and without a history of violent victimization and mental health workers with and without a history of mental illness. They found that police detectives who experienced violent victimization and mental health professionals who have experienced the same mental illness as their clients exhibited greater work engagement than their colleagues who lack these parallel life experiences. Firsthand experience of client’s hardships made police detects more gritty and mental health professionals more empathetic. So how exactly did the shared experience of suffering increase competency? It made them try harder and gave them stronger sense of purpose. Another study showed that people even seek a career in coaching, counseling, and psychotherapy in response to their own prior distress.

These findings do not stand in isolation: Positive Psychologists have heavily investigated the phenomenon of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG). The phenomenon acknowledges that trauma often leaves someone shattered, but it also gives us hope that suffering is not the only option after traumatic experience. Many people manage to reach a markedly higher level of psychological functioning after they’ve healed. Specifically, successfully coping with a trauma can lead to:

  • greater appreciation of life and changed sense of priorities;
  • warmer, more intimate relationships with others;
  • a greater sense of personal strength;
  • recognition of new possibilities or paths for one’s life;
  • And spiritual development.

So when Nietzsche said, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger,” he was actually quite right. When everything seems bleak, remember that your despair has the potential to make you better and can be a source of inspiration for someone else.

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Nico Rose
Dr. Nico Rose is a German organizational psychologist. Recently, he was part of the 9th cohort of Penn´s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program (MAPP). In his day job, he´s Head of Employer Branding at Bertelsmann, Europe´s premier media corporation. Additionally, he works as a management coach and university lecturer. Nico has authored +40 professional articles and is a frequent interview partner for German magazines and online publications. Earlier, he worked for L’Oréal´s German branch. In 2012, his book “Lizenz zur Zufriedenheit” (License for Satisfaction) was published.
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