A Meaningful Life is Not Pain-Free: Creating Meaning in the Aftermath of Trauma
Author: Courtney Wells, PhD – Associate Director of the Trauma Program
There are many ways in which trauma has been defined since it first emerged in the mid- to late-19th century as a term applied, not just to medical events, but also to the observed psychological and emotional consequences of tragedy³. Trauma has been defined as an experience that is so distressing, it overwhelms individuals’ internal resources, negatively impacting their ability to cope with the event and its impact⁴’⁵.
One lasting impact of traumatic experiences is evidenced in individuals’ belief systems². For some people, trauma has been a near constant experience, setting foundational beliefs about themselves, other people, and even the world. As a result, every additional traumatic event seems to confirm these beliefs. For other people, life seems to have taken a particular course, then trauma happens, and that course feels forever altered. These individuals may experience a substantial shift in how they think about themselves, others, and the world. These beliefs often emerge as a means of protection, such as the belief “No one can be trusted;” however, these beliefs are difficult to shift and are often unresponsive to environmental and situational change².
In the face of trauma, many people experience just how unpredictable life can be. In the aftermath of trauma, many people put forth exhausting efforts to increase a sense of control in their lives, to eliminate the unknown and unpredictable. One of the main methods of control is avoidance; avoidance of memories, emotions, interactions, places, people, and the list continues. Avoidance feels like the way to protect oneself from future trauma. In other words, if I avoid relationships, and therefore having to do trust, then I avoid the inevitable consequence of being hurt. For many people who have experienced trauma, their world seems to get smaller and smaller as avoidance gains space. Eventually, this strategy proves to be hopeless.
The Trauma Program at Compass Health Center attempts to offer an alternative strategy, by asking, what might you be willing to tolerate in pursuit of what matters to you? When avoidance of trauma-related reminders and emotions operates as individuals’ main coping strategy, they often find themselves distant and cut off from those things that bring their life a sense of meaning. Relationships feel more distant, previously enjoyed activities are neglected, negative emotions seem to linger and positive emotions seem to be harder to experience. The Trauma Program at Compass Health Center foundationally integrates Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT); we intentionally shift away from pain as a measure of progress or success, given that pain often accompanies growth. Rather, we purposefully look at how individuals’ actions facilitate movement towards what matters to them¹.
This shift is incredibly difficult; it is fundamentally different than the way our society relates to emotions and thoughts. We exist in a culture that tells us, ‘if you don’t like it, change it;’ which is a highly effective strategy for most problems that exist outside the skin. However, when the thing we don’t like is our anxiety or fear, or the belief that “I am worthless,” this strategy of fixing it proves ineffective. We try isolation, avoidance, denial, substances, sleep, withdrawing, and any other strategy to get out of this pain. It’s as if we have walked into quicksand and react intuitively, by struggling to get out, only to realize that the more we struggle, the quicker we sink.
At Compass Health Center we provide evidence base empathic care by highly skilled trauma clinicians. Our goal is to help patients get back into their everyday lives. Please reach out to Compass Health Center Trauma Program if you feel we can be of help to you.
- Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K.D., & Wilson, K.G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavioral change. New York: Guilford Press.
- Resick, P.A., Monson, C.M., & Chard, K.M. (2017). Cognitive processing therapy for PTSD: A comprehensive manual. New York: Guilford Press.
- Figley, C.R., Ellis, A. E., Reuther, B.T., & Gold, S.N. (2017). The study of trauma: A historical overview. In Gold, S. N., APA Handbook of Trauma Psychology, Volume 2, Trauma Practice (pp.1-11). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
- Dalenberg, C.J., Straus, E., & Carlson, E.B. (2017). Defining trauma. In Gold, S. N., APA Handbook of Trauma Psychology, Volume 2, Trauma Practice (pp.15-33). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
- Briere, J. & Scott, C. (2006). Principles of trauma therapy: A guide to symptoms, evaluation, and treatment. California: Sage Publications.