How to support team members through post-traumatic growth

In recent weeks in this space, we have been taking a pretty deep dive into topics connected and concerned with Trauma-Informed Leadership. Perhaps some of the ideas and concepts have been new to you and you are now using words at work like: regulation and co-regulation, and I really hope you are using the words “self-regulation” a lot. If you missed out on some of these earlier posts you can read them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

We have established that trauma-informed leadership assumes that most people have experienced some form of trauma at some time in their lives. Types of traumas can be broad and far reaching. We know that intergenerational trauma happens to entire groups of people. In Canada we can look at the history of our Indigenous peoples and how the massive abuses perpetuated by the 60’s Scoop and residential schools (just to name two, there are many more abuses to list) have deeply traumatized generations of people.

Trauma can be systemic such as medical trauma and still other traumas are due to racism, sexism, homophobia and cause devastating effects on peoples’ lives from bullying and ostracization.  Some trauma is historical and happens to people when they are very young, leaving them struggling for life unable to break chronic behavioral habits and patterns. Sometimes we describe these early trauma experiences as “developmental” and this indicates that a serious trauma has in fact interrupted typical childhood development.

We know all this trauma exists and we are using skills to more adeptly notice when people we work with leave a regulated state and demonstrate dysregulated behaviours. But there is a glaring question we have not yet addressed: do people ever get better from their traumatic symptoms? Because of the way our nervous systems are built and manage emotional traumas are we stuck in dysregulation forever?

I’ve got good news in the form of Post-Traumatic Growth. But first, a word on superheroes.

To me, it seems like stories have always been one way that humans process trauma. Sitting around the fire, elders tell us about the hero’s journey, and we listen with intent. We learn from these examples and apply the concepts to our own lives. In modern day, we sit around the fire less, but we still congregate to absorb hero stories. It’s no surprise we create and share stories about how to process trauma; this is something we are all trying to collectively figure out. Why? Because trauma is uncomfortable as are the aftereffects of it on the human systems. We instinctually desire comfort, for both body and soul, in all environments.

Every hero has a trauma. In the movies it’s usually a huge one: the tragic death of parents or community, the destruction of a home world, the loss of a body part etc. The main character is near death from the worst conceivable thing that could have happened to them.

As watchers of the story, it resonates in our bodies when the hero is at the brink of the abyss. We’ve been here emotionally, if not physically. Then as observers of the journey we see not one, but two things happen.

One, the hero, either by their own choice or by the fact there is no other path forward, gets resilient. I want to establish now: resiliency is NOT post-traumatic growth, but it is highly significant to the path from collapse to thriving.

I want to be compassionate in this piece of writing to the people in the room who are about to click this article closed and go get another cup of coffee because they don’t want to hear about, talk about, or BE “resilient” anymore. There was a new feeling to this word over the Covid-19 pandemic that being resilient meant just pushing through one more abusive day, and as people on the outside cheered, some felt themselves descend into a nervous system collapse – burnout. I am a human services worker by trade, I understand that the word resilient is loaded.

Because we are creatures hard-wired for social connection, while we can be resilient alone, our resiliency is reinforced when we have connection and support from others.

The American Psychological Society describes resiliency as: “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. As much as resilience involves “bouncing back” from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.”

Resiliency is part of the process towards health, wellness, and stress management. Resiliency includes things like coping skills, and strategies & survival mechanisms that can move us through the adversity and challenges we face. As humans, just as we have different response to trauma (what traumatizes me might not traumatize you due to temperament, history, skills, and biological factors) and we all have different levels of resiliency in different environments.

When a superhero is surrounded by their squad, they are very resilient.

Resiliency is beginning of the story the superhero loses an arm in a horrific battle, and then goes to the magical doctor to get a new bionic arm and avenge the bad guys. Resiliency is adapting, “making the best of a bad situation”, changing something about ourselves, or gaining a new skill so we can survive.

We need resiliency to get though the day. Granted it can be taxing to preform or fake resilience or to have the expectation of superhuman resilience placed upon us. We all need to rest from being everyday superheroes. Be easy on yourself in this area. Being able to rest is also a form of resiliency.

Post-traumatic growth is what happens when we stay resilient after a trauma and stay resilient through the lasting effects of the traumatic experience on our bodies. Remember: trauma is not the actual event – it is the lasting body and emotional sensations we have, sometimes for the rest of our lives.

  • Post-traumatic growth is the knowledge you gain from the process of resiliency that shifts our worldview and the view of ourselves
  • Post-traumatic growth is the lessons we learned that impact how we conduct ourselves in the world
  • Post-traumatic growth is impossible without awareness and a mind-body connection

Post-traumatic growth is a superhero deciding they will never stand for injustice again, or that they are capable of profound forgiveness. Post-traumatic growth is not a destination, there is no X on the map, it is not a prize to achieve.

Post-traumatic growth doesn’t mean that we don’t feel dysregulation anymore. It means we have a powerful new lens to see our dysregulation through. And this learning profoundly shapes who we are in the most basic way: our ideals, values, ethics, and instincts are finding a new alignment after trauma to be in the world. Resiliency is the process that brings us to post traumatic-growth’s revelations and knowledge.

Let’s be clear: we are human. We are not movie superheroes and so there is a big difference to clarify- Trauma does not make you stronger. It is not in our lives to “test” us, and it does not create resiliency.

We create (and co-create with those we are connected to) resiliency. We create growth. We create our own foundations.

It is true there are times we can’t create resiliency after trauma and we are collapsed, shut down and frozen. Maybe we are we in a perpetual state of fight or flight that looks like showing up angry, anxious, or unable to commit to responsibility and decision making. Here is where trauma-informed leaders can step in and start to offer a light to shine on the path of post-traumatic growth. Depending on the source of the trauma, post-traumatic growth can last a lifetime but can be navigated with support through techniques like self- and co-regulation, embodied practices, and awareness.

Our real-life hero’s voyages are the same as we see in the movies. Our lives are not directed and produced for the sole purpose of entertainment – our lives are journeys of exploration into the human mind, psyche, emotions, and spirits. People on the journey into post-traumatic growth are the real heroes – the ones we should cheer for loudly and with deep support.

Trauma likely touches all of us in one way or another, therefore, we can all move forward with it in our lives. The resonance of trauma may always be with us at home, at work, in the community, and in our relationships, but it also offers the chance to see the profound difference it makes and engage with each step as it presents on the journey.

Supporting others in this growth and in moments of challenge – now that’s leadership.