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I can be sad and happy - Post Traumatic Growth

Posted on April 7, 2015

As part of Jane Rowley’s Clore Social Fellowship she is investigating ways to support people in the transition from military service. Her background is in drugs work and homelessness and has an interest in the process of recovering from addiction.  Jane is currently developing her knowledge around military service organisations inspired by her Specialist Fellowship sponsors, the Forces in Mind Trust.

Much of my life and career has been about getting on with surviving in the face of adversity.

When life’s challenges have come to call my first thought, like most peoples’, has not been ‘How can I grow from this?’ In the face of a seemingly insurmountable challenge, most of us will naturally respond, ‘How do I survive this?’ Or even ‘Do I even want to survive this? It is exhausting’.

Much of my career has been spent helping people work through these questions, to develop resilience and overcome traumas they have experienced. This kind of work is something that many service providers in the social sector are very good at.  But as I’ve begun my Clore Social Fellowship, I’ve had time to think about this apparently linear journey more deeply, and I’m realising the picture is more complex - and potentially more transformative.

My experience of support services in the social sector has tended been based on what could be called a deficit model. The assumption that a service user has a problem, a vulnerability, a deficit and so needs support to solve it, resolve it or develop it. But asset based approaches - building on skills, knowledge and experience rather than focus on what is missing or damaged , is something that has been gaining ground in the sector and I find particularly interesting.

For some time I’ve been looking into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a well-known diagnosis often attached to combat experiences and something that presents long term challenges for many. Especially for those who have experienced military combat, something that is often so separate from the realm of civilian life.  There are many brilliant initiatives helping those with PTSD to develop their resilience. So what direction is this work moving in now?

To me, resilience means the ability to cope and manage in the face of stress. This is a skill I have developed myself over the years through my personal experience of cancer and recovering whilst working, studying and raising a child as a young woman. But I’ve realised that I’ve carried with me the notion that being resilient or being traumatised are mutually exclusive; that you move from one state to the other. I now realise now that’s not necessarily the case. We are all slightly broken and coping in our own ways, these experiences are what most often drive us forward but do not have to define or label us.  

The concept of Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) seems to offer another stage of development and has evolved out of the field of positive psychology. It offers the idea that in between the pathology of PTSD and the development of resilience there is a place where we grow and have positive gains from our traumatic experiences.

Often this comes from being heard, really having our stories listened too and acknowledged. This acceptance of our experiences combined with an acceptance that we can both be anxious, traumatised and unhappy whilst functioning in a way that is developing our resilience and bringing about change both intrigues and resonates with me.

I am a meticulous planner, a highly efficient and organised individual.  But I am also often anxious about how people perceive my thinking and approach. I give particular focus to the slightest negative connotations in any exchange. But have learned that that’s ok. Focusing on the negative means I can pause and take stock before making changes, which gives me time to reflect. I can have an off day, a strategic withdrawal from the world and that’s ok too. I have developed resilience in the face of my own challenges but continued to grow. These aspects coexist and this is what PTG is about: being heard, developing new stories about our lives that weave the fabric of both trauma and success together with acceptance.

Listening to peoples stories’ with empathy offers the opportunity to grow and looking back I can see how some of the most dreadful things I have faced have not been surmounted but incorporated, just like the challenges we all face being woven into the fabric of our communities making us all stronger.

As part of my Fellowship, this summer I will be spending time with organisations and individuals both in the UK and the US who are working with Post Traumatic growth. I expect to be both challenged and inspired by what they are doing - and I’m ready for wherever that new learning will take me.

 

The Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT) has announced it is funding three further Specialist Fellowships from 2016 to 2018, which will be made available to aspiring leaders committed to improving the lives of former serving members of the UK’s Armed Forces and their families.  

Sign up here to keep up to date with the latest news on how to apply for the 2016 Clore Social Fellowship.

 

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Jane Rowley

Jane Rowley

Leading social care for ex-service personnel

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