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How Some People Find Happiness After A Trauma

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Written by Monica Matys, a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

Years ago, an emergency doctor mentioned something that always stayed with me. Despite having spent his career treating people who had, in many cases, barely survived major traumas, he said many were happier people afterwards. How is it that someone could go through something so difficult and be happier? It's just in the last few weeks, after meeting a patient named Nazreth, did I learn that phenomenon is very real and has a name: post-traumatic growth.

Earlier this year, Nazreth was in Ghana doing work with a non-profit organization. During a weekend trip, the bus she was on blew a tire. She says she remembers hearing the sound, and seeing the driver struggling in vain to get control of the vehicle. The bus skidded, rolled several times, and ejected Nazreth about eight feet away. The pain came on swiftly, what she would later learn was the result of 23 fractures throughout her body.

"I remember laying outside looking up at the sky in excruciating pain," she says. "And for me, that was the scariest moment. Not knowing if I was going to get help or not." Luckily, some strangers came to her aide. She was evacuated to Germany first because Canada was too far to travel, considering her injuries. After two surgeries and one month in hospital, she was finally flown home to Toronto. And despite everything that has happened, or maybe as a result of it, she describes herself as happier now.

Dr. Paula Gardner is a clinical psychologist at St. John's Rehab in Toronto, and describes post-traumatic growth as a "positive change or transformation following the struggle of a major life crisis." Post-traumatic growth has been increasingly researched over the past 20 years, and Dr. Gardner says it affects about half of all trauma survivors. What really seems to matter are five key indicators:

  1. if the traumatic event opens up new opportunities
  2. if it makes relationships more meaningful
  3. if it helps a person tap into inner strength
  4. if it triggers a new perspective on what really matters
  5. and if it causes a deepening of spirituality or faith

Importantly, Dr. Gardner says reaching this positive place doesn't happen in isolation of other emotions, like distress and loss. "Human beings are complex, and we need to respect the emotional process. Some people can't even conceive of anything positive coming out of what's happened to them. But others feel there are ways to find meaning and live a quality life, even given their losses or limitations."

So what makes the difference in reaching a more positive outcome? Dr. Gardner says a support system is critical, which can come in many forms like family, friends, medical therapists and the church. That's something Nazreth agrees with, after receiving support every time she reached out for help. "When you are vulnerable and you open up to others, the rewards are so great."

Nazreth gave herself time to process what happened to her, which in turn shifted her happiness barometer. Now, she says material things have been trumped by deeper measures, like having a day without pain. "I'm lucky. Even though I've had so many injuries, I'm still here. I feel very excited about life and about learning about myself."

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