About Reconstructing Meaning after Trauma

(Publishing House: Elsevier Incorporated [New York])

Why does meaning need to be rebuilt after trauma?

Trauma exists when people experience an event that is so shattering, it does two things. First, it violently shakes people out of their conventions and their comfort zones, and forces a reconsideration of the important questions in life. Second, trauma violates one or more fundamental assumptions about life. These fundamental assumptions are:

  1. That the world is a benevolent and safe place,
  2. That justice and fairness prevail, and
  3. That I am a worthwhile person.

In the wake of trauma, when these fundamental assumptions can no longer be taken for granted, people struggle to accomplish a return to their previous meanings. As an example, a victim of a violent crime may no longer be able to agree that the world is a safe place, but she can focus on the help of people who came to her aid. Thus, she can count on the help of human beings that cared for her in her great need, and believe that people will do that again for her should she need that intervention.

Are traumatized people always negatively affected?

Some traumatized people do not show the great distress of mind, heart and emotions that others do. We speak of those people as having resilience. After a trauma, these people experience a brief period of disruption, such as several weeks of preoccupation with the event, but then their lives seem to return to normal. They pick back up with jobs, families, social and community responsibilities, and the like.

Why are these people different?

First, no one experiences any event in the same way as another person. Minor fluctuations in health, mood, and circumstance affect our ability to respond. More importantly, people with lots of social support from other persons, personal characteristics of courage and thriving on adversity, and an ability to draw back from unhealthy dwelling on problems seem to be resilient.

But it must be acknowledged that persons who experience deep traumas with fewer resources, suffer greatly. They often have one or more of three sources of distress. First, they have unwanted re-experiencing of the trauma, hearing noises, seeing distorted images, feeling pain and terror, and having dreams about the event. Second, they attempt to cope using avoidance. They try to avoid thinking about the trauma, or they physically avoid places or people that remind them of the trauma. Third, their mood and their thinking starts becoming governed by uncontrollability: they have angry outbursts, they feel hopeless, they withdraw from activities they used to enjoy, and they are easily startled or frightened. And these changes feel uncontrollable, in the sense that the changes are simply there all of a sudden, and the person believes they cannot alter their mood or their thinking.

Can people make sense out of events that just don't make sense?

Yes. Sense-making means to develop and build the right type of inner examination of the trauma that promotes personal growth. Sometimes inner examinations only serve to re-inflict the trauma, and the person re-experiences the pain and horror over and over again. But sense making, in contrast, builds a story, a narrative, which is meaningful and causes life change. As an example, parents who lost a young child to cancer can change from deep grief and despair to discovering in their hearts the ability and desire to work with other bereaved parents. They make sense out of their loss by volunteering at the hospital where their own child died, spending time with parents whose children are dying.

What is finding benefit?

In the process of sense making, people often realize that they have gained a tangible benefit from their suffering. One is a growth in empathy for persons in similar circumstances. The volunteering parents above know much more about how to help given their own experience. Another benefit is a greatly increased appreciation of what is truly important in life and what is not. Being grateful for the "small things" such as a lovely sunset or observing a happy child at a playground or enjoying a meal with friends is often mentioned. A third benefit is improved relationships. The tragedy of trauma can create a desire for more loving, less strained relationships with family and friends. Forgiving past wounds is an important part of this benefit. Last, a frequent benefit is new or renewed religious faith, spiritual orientation toward the world, and a richer existential life.

What topics are covered in the book?

The book has three sections. The first covers the basics of meaning in life, trauma, and betrayal trauma (trauma committed within a culture or community that should have been a trusted source of protection but instead became an unsafe environment). The second explains mechanisms, means by which the distress and tragedy of trauma can be undone: the roles of religion and spirituality, forgiveness, gender, and creative and expressive arts. The third delves into specific populations of people who experience trauma: adults who are sexually abused, persons with acquired physical disabilities, persons who daily experience vicarious trauma - the emergency medical dispatchers who interact with the horror of the event during its occurrence, and children suffering from severe trauma such as refugees and victims of sexual trafficking.