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How My Cervical Spine Trauma Morphed into Post-Traumatic Growth

“In general, the ability to make sense of tragedy and then find benefit in it is the key that unlocks post traumatic growth.” — Jonathan Haidt

What is Post Traumatic Growth?

Some people who experience trauma suffer negative consequences, such as intrusive thoughts, fear, anger, depression, anxiety, hurt, or resentment. Still others may experience PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or C-PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), while some survivors may bounce back with no discernable issues. The purpose of this blog post is to inform you about Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) and the likelihood that you will experience healing growth in specific areas of your life, post-trauma.

For thousands of years, through ancient teachings and religious writings, humankind has been exposed to the idea that suffering can lead to positive change in the survivor. This centuries-old concept was modernized in 1996 when the PTG psychological concept was first introduced by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun.

Instead of focusing on the negative results of trauma, PTG focuses on positive psychological change that some trauma survivors experience after struggling with highly challenging or highly stressful life circumstances.1 But everyone who experiences trauma does not achieve growth.

Growth does not automatically occur because a survivor experiences trauma. Whether survivors experience growth is dependent upon their struggle to make sense of the trauma in the aftermath. Researchers estimate that half to two-thirds of trauma survivors may experience PTG.2

As a practical note, negative post-trauma behaviors can co-exist at the same time as growth.

Differences Between PTG, Resilience, and Thriving

In the context of PTG, the concepts of resilience, and thriving are frequently referred to, but they are not the same as PTG. PTG is a positive, reactionary transformation or change exhibited by a person after suffering trauma, whereas resilience suggests bouncing back and returning to a previous emotional state. Thriving includes resiliency plus additional behavioral improvements over and above the quality of life experienced before the traumatic event.

There is no standardized timeframe for healing from trauma. Becoming resilient can take months or years.3 The development, continued evolution, and accomplishment of PTG and thriving can take months, years, decades, or a lifetime.

Mental Determinants of PTG

In addition to developing the concept of PTG, psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun developed a Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI) that is used to evaluate whether and to what extent someone has achieved growth after trauma. The 21-item inventory measures personal growth in the following five areas:4

  • Appreciation of Life—Gratitude for one’s own life and life in general. Change of priorities.
  • Relating to Others—Increase in social support from friends or family.
  • New Possibilities—Recognition of new opportunities, interests, or directions.
  • Personal Strength—Increase in self-reliance and mental strength. Increase in ability to handle difficulties. Greater acceptance of life situations.
  • Spiritual Change—Stronger religious faith or change in existential or philosophical beliefs.

Personality Traits Conducive to PTG

Interestingly, researchers in the field of personality psychology have found that PTG is associated with these personality characteristics to a greater degree:

  • Agreeableness—Trusting, altruistic, compliant, honest, modest. More likely to seek support when needed and to receive it from others.
  • Openness—Curious, open to new experiences, emotionally responsive to surroundings.
  • Extroversion—More likely to adopt problem-solving strategies and seek support from others. Survivors use coping strategies that enable growth.
  • Conscientiousness—Self-regulate internal experiences. Exhibit better impulse control. More likely to adjust to stressors.1

My Traumatic Health Event

When I was 69, I developed severe pain in my neck after participating for a decade in choreographed kickboxing workouts to music. After the second debilitating episode, I made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon. He ordered an MRI of my cervical spine. As we viewed the MRI together, we saw that the spinal cord narrowed severely and almost disappeared at two points in the upper back below the neck.

Based on this extreme narrowing, the doctor advised cervical spine surgery to perform a procedure called a Laminectomy. This procedure removes the bony arch that forms the backside of the spinal canal, thereby providing more space for the compressed spinal cord to expand within the spinal canal. To provide structural reinforcement to the spine due to the removal of the bony arches, the impacted vertebrae are fused, and bars are inserted and screwed into the bone for added stabilization.

The doctor further informed me that without surgery, if I were to fall or have a car accident where my neck was severely compromised, instant death might result.

I was shocked.

Bewildered.

Stunned.

How could this be happening to me? Up to this point, I had been athletic my entire life, engaging in numerous sports as a child, adolescent, and adult. Attending weekly group kickboxing or aerobic dance workouts at the gym for the last 22 years, I considered myself to be in good health and fit.

The spinal condition and the recommended surgery that would result in five fused vertebrae meant that I could no longer engage in the weekly activity that gave me unbounded joy. After all, 38 years ago, the movement to music with its resulting joy replaced the high I formerly sought from consuming alcohol.

Scared and nervous about the prospect of invasive back surgery, I consulted two other orthopedic surgeons at local medical facilities. Given the same diagnosis and warning, they recommended different surgical procedures to achieve the same result. I had to decide whether to have this potentially life-altering surgery and if so, where and by whom. The other option was to do nothing; continue living without the surgery and hope I didn’t suffer a serious car accident or devastating fall.

But if I could no longer engage in choreographed kickboxing to pop music, how was I going to survive without my bi-weekly dose of joy?

Not wanting to live in constant fear or worry about my spinal cord, I agreed to have the surgery, knowing that life post-surgery would forever be changed. As for losing my ability to perform movement to music, I’d have to find a substitute.

My Worldview

The cervical spine event, as scary as the physical condition and the surgical prospect was, did fit my worldview that anything can happen to anyone at any time and that there are no guarantees in life, except death and taxes. Sure enough, an out-of-the-blue trauma occurred (health), one that I never in my wildest dreams would ever have thought possible, let alone imagined.

What I Learned from My Traumatic Health Event

Post-surgery, I experienced considerable healing pain for six weeks followed by three months of physical therapy. The feeling of physical and emotional vulnerability during recovery was profound and unexpected. I wanted to protect my neck at all costs. I did not want to engage in any activity that I perceived as even remotely risky to my cervical spine.

It was two and one-half years after the surgery before I felt fully recovered emotionally, having adapted to my neck’s limited range of motion. I was extremely grateful that the surgery did not cause harm and that I live pain-free except for periodic discomfort when washing the dishes or otherwise holding my head down or extending it forward for a prolonged period.

From the surgery and its aftermath, I learned the following:

  • Compassion for other spinal cord patients
  • Increased knowledge about spinal cord injuries
  • Life goes on, whether I adapt to my new physical limitations or resist them.
  • It’s up to me to deal with my trauma and to heal and learn from it.
  • Only people who have undergone the same or a similar surgical procedure truly understand the physical and emotional ramifications.
  • Acceptance of the trauma and its ensuing physical limitations

Regarding my traumatic health event, I experienced PTG in the following areas:

  • Appreciation of Life—Gratitude that I am alive and not living with cervical spine pain.
  • New Possibilities—Purchased a treadmill to use as my regular form of exercise. Replaced kickboxing joy with satisfaction and fulfillment as a memoirist and trauma blogger.
  • Personal Strength—Confidence that I can handle a difficult health situation. Acceptance of my exercise limitations (No kickboxing or other high-impact activity. Only selected exercises that allow me to keep my spine straight as I perform them.).

Message to Trauma Survivors

For survivors of all types of traumas, first things first.

If you are experiencing chronic anxiety, clinical depression, trauma-related memories, chronic illness, or unhealthy coping methods that are making your life unmanageable, please seek therapeutic assistance from professional healthcare providers or other support groups. When you are living life more comfortably, you can then begin or continue processing the aftermath of your trauma and attempt to make sense of it.

Whether or not you possess the personality traits most conducive to PTG mentioned in the Personality Traits Conducive to PTG section in this blog post, you can download, take, and score the 21-item PTGI to evaluate your personal growth following a traumatic event. After taking the inventory, you can see the areas in which you have experienced growth and the ones in which you may wish to improve. Keep in mind that you can take the inventory multiple times and the results may change.

Remember, recovery from trauma is not linear. There are ups and downs and all-arounds. Sometimes, it’s one step forward followed by two steps backward. Take baby steps and be kind to yourself always. Persist and persevere. You are so worth it!

Related Blog Posts

Separating from Your Inner Critic

How Emotional Abuse Fueled My Addictions

Dare to Reveal Your Inner Self

How to Self-Parent Your Inner Child

Resources

Post-traumatic Growth Inventory By Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D. and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D. 1996.

References

1. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-traumatic_growth

2. Post-Traumatic Growth.” Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff. Psychology Today.

3. “What Is Post-Traumatic Growth and Coping in a Pandemic? By Sheela Raja, Ph.D. April 2, 2020. Psychology Today.

4. Growth after trauma” By Lorna Collier. November 2016. American Psychological Association.

Additional Reading

The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook: Practical Mind-Body Tools to Heal Trauma, Foster Resilience and Awaken Your Potential. By Arielle Schwartz. January 13, 2020.

The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. By Arielle Schwartz. January 10, 2017.

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