Thursday 2 February 2017

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Post Traumatic Growth (PTG)

What does it mean to grow from trauma?

We tend to associate 'trauma' with negative and upsetting experiences, but post traumatic growth, which Naz told us is a relatively new concept in the psychology literature, is about 'growing' in 'positive' ways from the trauma that we have endured, for instance, re-evaluating our priorities, goals, values, and holding a deep gratitude and appreciation for life.

As a group, our experiences were diverse, including many women with primary breast cancer and recurrence as well as some women with secondary breast cancer. Many of us had finished our active treatment although some of us were still undergoing treatment for primary and secondary breast cancer.

Many of us described the way our lives had changed positively as a result of having breast cancer, for example, identifying either 'ourselves' or 'our lives' as being 'better', 'richer' and more meaningful. Others were more cautious, acknowledging both gains and losses, but overall there was broad agreement that we had discovered a new and deeper appreciation for simple pleasures we may have taken for granted before our diagnosis, whether this was delicious meals, the sight of the bright sun, or dappled light on the forest floor.

Many of us shared that we had reconnected with our values, for instance perhaps having a greater appreciation for 'normal life', home and family, whilst others had experienced a shift in values, perhaps becoming more willing to take risks, be more adventurous and open themselves up to new experiences, doing new things, perhaps that they had never before had the courage to do.

We asked ourselves whether our insights had changed for the better due to the trauma that we had experienced and whether we now found more meaning in life?

The answers to these questions were broadly 'yes' - we felt we were kinder, more compassionate, wiser and empathetic. Some of us described having learned to put ourselves first, becoming more assertive, more confident and gave examples of setting boundaries in stressful work environments, or changing and leaving jobs. Some of us had developed new interests and skills; found ourselves wanting to learn and study or had found ways to express our creativity, perhaps through writing, painting, or taking up mindfulness. Friendship and the chance to make new friends was highlighted as an opportunity for both growth and pleasure.

Stephen Joseph, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nottingham, makes this point:
‘Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were, remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living’.

We thought that this was a compelling idea, but we also wondered how we can achieve post traumatic growth - 'build themselves anew' implies having the resources, strength and courage to put the building blocks together towards resilience to make this happen. Where do we find these resources from? Could we be placing unrealistic expectations on ourselves to 'grow' and learn from trauma? Especially when we consider that one of the conclusions of last week's discussion was that we take our cancer forward, continuing to live with trauma, our brains are on high alert, vigilant for signs, symptoms, and we are tired, fatigued, and our cognitive functions running low on fuel. These issues as well as the ongoing challenges facing our members with secondary breast cancer is especially pertinent, requiring considerable efforts and energy to manage.

Naz wondered whether post traumatic growth might help make our journey easier. Should we develop a blanket definition that applies to everyone, or can we have our own individual patterns of growth? It would be a challenge to quantify post traumatic growth - how can we measure it and its impact on the changes that it brings about in us?

Naz told us that expressive talking about cancer and related fears has been found to be key in determining the extent and sustainability of post traumatic growth. She also told us about other work which has shown that expressive talking about our fears and threats can boost cognitive function in positive ways, which seems necessary to, as Joseph puts it, 'build ourselves anew'.

Joseph suggests that we can nurture our capacity to grow by asking ourselves these questions:

'Are there ways in which my relationships with family and friends have been strengthened and deepened in intimacy?

Are there ways in which I have found a different perspective on life with new opportunities?

Are there things I did to survive what happened that showed me strengths within myself that I didn’t know I had?

Are there ways in which I have found a greater understanding of life and how to live it?

Are there ways in which I find myself being more grateful for what I have and for those around me?'


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