• Psychotherapy is more well-known for supporting people through trauma, but does coaching have a role further down the line?

  • Coach Ruth Cooper-Dickson explores post-traumatic growth and how coaching can help

  • We have coaches available to support you here

One in six adults recognise they have symptoms of poor mental health, and coaching is often sought by people when they are going through a difficult time in their life. Especially with all of the adverse situation’s life continues to throw at us, such as burnout, losing your job, the breakdown of a relationship, or an existential crisis about what is next in life, this is not even including the day-to-day stressors we navigate.

A coach will often use the description, that they help people who might feel blocked, or the client is seeking coaching as they feel stuck, but not sure why. 

Sometimes our clients stuck-ness can be underpinning trauma-related issues. Trauma related narratives may also emerge during a session, whether this is acknowledging an aspect of the client’s past life as it bubbles up mid conversation, or they may go through a form of trauma whilst in the process of coaching, such as experiencing a bereavement. I personally love this quote: “It’s hard to imagine the scope of individual life without envisioning some kind of trauma, and it is hard for most people to know what to do about it.”

Coaching is not therapy

Despite the similarities there is a strong demarcation that coaching is not therapy. Yet there is more recognition that coaching is slowly being developed, to have an important role in supporting an individual when navigating a difficult part of their life.  

I see my role as a coach to work with someone who is on the languishing to flourishing continuum, from zero to ten. Whereas my therapeutic peers will often work on the opposite end of the continuum from languishing at zero, down to minus ten. This of course is not always the case with the idea of positive therapy, but more often than not therapy leads to focused treatment for mental ill health and emotional issues; those issues which disturb the functioning of a person’s daily life and could include pathology and definable disorders.  

This is where it is important to recognise there is a space on the languishing to flourishing scale that traumatic events will happen. Whether you describe them as big T or little t trauma, it is completely in the eye of the beholder. Trauma is not what happens to us, but it is how we interpret that trauma. Which is why two people could go through the same redundancy at work and respond to the same situation differently. For example, one person may feel knocked but they bounce back and start job hunting, for the other person it may shatter their assumptions and beliefs e.g. I thought that this was a job for life, which has a deep impact. 

Understanding post-traumatic growth

It is not the trauma itself where the growth happens but how our clients engage with the aftermath of their experience, and coaching is an intervention where a client might engage with the challenges of the trauma. 

In the mid-1990’s the term ‘post-traumatic growth’ was coined by Tedeschi and Calhoun, defined as ‘positive psychological changes experienced as a result of the struggle with traumatic or highly challenging life circumstances.”

Therefore, post-traumatic growth (PTG) can be seen as both the process and the outcome.  It is viewed as the phenomenon of positive change, so once the client has experienced trauma they return to a different and higher-level of functioning. 

PTG in someone who has been struggling is reported across the following domains:

  • A change in perception of self

  • A change in spirituality, priorities, and relationship with others

  • A changed philosophy in life

  • A deeper appreciation for life

  • A new sense of life direction, opportunities, and purpose

Myth busting post-traumatic growth

It is important to note some myth-busts on PTG; that growth does not happen to everyone who experiences trauma, it comes from the deep work that follows. 

PTG is not the opposite end of the scale of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, people can experience both PTSD and PTG. The individual does not also feel happy or glad they have experienced such difficult circumstances, especially when we are talking about the ripping apart of the very fabric of their life. 

The transformational model of PTG is that the process is initiated due to intrusive rumination, through the self-analysis and self-disclosure which can be partially facilitated by coaching, the individual is able to cope better and move forward. This was very much evident in my peer-reviewed research, where I interviewed experienced professional coaches and found many to be working on the edge.  

I have observed this growth in my own trauma-informed coaching practice, from designing and delivering coaching programmes for women who have experienced trauma and abuse, to humanitarian aid volunteers working with the refugee communities our in the field. I’m now working within a physiotherapy clinic, working with coaching referrals of individuals who have gone through medical or injury related trauma.  

Many of the clients I’ve coached have undergone some sort of therapy, or sometimes are seeing a therapist in conjunction with our coaching. They describe our time together as more positive, focused on their change and enabling them to cultivate self-compassion for their healing journey, and hope for the future. 

I believe there is a definite space for coaching to support the process and outcome of PTG especially in the world we now live in, and that our coaching clients will regularly present with complex and difficult lives.  

My research definitely highlights that for coaches there is a clear need for trauma-informed knowledge and training, to safeguard both the coach and the client. This also means there is a call for ethical provision and a scaffolding of clear guidelines, in what currently are muddy waters for knowing how to navigate those edges when you are coaching. Research shows people do not need to be pushed to PTG but will automatically move into the space within a supportive relationship, which is where coaching can hold that safe space for the client’s transformation, allowing them to move into their own healing journey.

Further reading

Addiction: what's the role of a recovery coach?

Numbness: what it means to feel numb and how counselling can help

Trauma responses: understanding your window of tolerance

Polyvagal theory, dissociation and yoga: healing trauma through embodiment