On Finding Gratitude After Trauma
Having experienced dealing with trauma myself, I know what it’s like to feel like you’re crumbling on the inside, and at the same time be trying to keep up the impression that everything is okay.
It can be exhausting not knowing how to feel better, to have destructive, repetitive thoughts, and to feel like it’s a huge challenge to make it through the next hour, never mind get through an entire day.
Unfortunately this is the reality for many people who are processing, dealing with, and healing from a traumatic event.
In May 2012 when I was on holiday in Spain I was locked in what I thought was a taxi, and I was raped. The same year I lost one of my best friends unexpectedly, and in the next few years following lost another two friends from the same circle, both of whom took their own lives.
Trauma comes in many forms, whether sexual assault, sudden death, natural disaster, war, violence, major injury or illness, and can leave you struggling to function as you try to deal with your experience.
At first I refused to face what had happened to me, and I blocked out any memory or recollection from my mind, until years later when I had a flashback to being locked in that car. It was like the flood gates had opened, and all of the emotions and fear came rushing back in, and even stronger than before.
I woke up from nightmares in the middle of the night, feeling terrified, and pinned to my bed. I hallucinated in the daytime, and struggled to understand how I was ever going to feel happy again. My relationships suffered, and I didn’t want to socialise or talk with friends on the phone.
Meditating and working with a counsellor was helping, and there was also a practice that I knew to do which would help me make it through.
Having studied positive psychology for my masters degree, I knew the power of gratitude, not just to enhance wellbeing, but also to help you feel lifted and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety when you’re feeling low.
I had practiced finding gratitude in the good times, but it was time to really put the science to the test, to see if gratitude could create a shift in the most challenging of times too.
First I found gratitude for the things I could immediately see and connect to – such as being thankful for those friends, mentors, and professionals who were supporting me. I gave thanks for my health, for my family, and for my ability to see that one day I might be able to help somebody else through what I’d experienced.
I started to feel happier, could sleep better, and felt like there might be a light at the end of the tunnel after all. But I still had a lingering negative association when the word rape was mentioned, and I found it so difficult to speak about without feeling physically sick.
What eventually allowed me to let go of the attachment to the trauma, and view it as an event that had happened, rather than something that still negatively affected me, was going deep into gratitude for the experience itself.
Now this might not be something that is available to you right now, and it definitely felt challenging the first time I tried to write down in my gratitude journal to give thanks in this way. But what I found when I persisted with the practice, was that I could see how much I had grown from this experience, how much stronger I was, and how I now wouldn’t let unimportant things get in my way.
Start by making a list of all of the things you are grateful for – fill an entire page if you can. Then make a list of the things you would like to be grateful for, because you can understand the value of them, but maybe you don’t feel fully able to connect with the gratitude for them just yet. Know that the connection will come, and that you’ll start to feel lighter, brighter, and more able to enjoy life again.
There’s a phenomenon we study in positive psychology, called post-traumatic growth. It teaches that after trauma you can bounce back, and actually surpass your previous norm, to feel happier than ever before.
In my experience, this has been true. I now feel happier and more authentically able to enjoy life, knowing how it feels to be forced to navigate the challenges in the past.
My challenges and struggles have allowed me to find a deeper meaning, purpose and sense of fulfilment in life, and I’m now grateful for the hard times as well as the good times, because I know that both afford us so much growth.
Niyc Pidgeon, Now Is Your Chance: