How to Turn Post-Traumatic Stress Into Massive Growth
On September 11th, 2001, the twin towers that were the World Trade Center fell.
I was there to see it.
Working only a few short blocks away placed me at the epicenter of an event that echoed around the globe, changing the fabric of our culture, and radically altering the trajectory of my life.
The challenges I have faced after that day have been large, but facing those challenges each day has led to massive personal growth.
The life I have today is unrecognizable, and the joy and appreciation I have for life have no bounds.
This journey has not been easy.
It took 14 years before I was able to look at my suffering. And when I did, I came to the realization that I had been covering up a lifetime of pain.
I was paralyzed and consumed with feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and anger.
I couldn’t see a way out.
Slowly I learned to have faith and trust again. Taking tiny steps each day took me to the light and ultimately to a place where I found strategies for massive personal growth.
I am not special, and I believe that these strategies can work for anyone who has the drive to be free from their trauma and live a life they could only dream of.
Post-traumatic stress took my family, friends, and the things that were important to me. I had no solution.
Shortly after the September 11th attacks, I returned to work. And it felt strange.
I felt like an actor on the stage, playing a part, a long way off from who I was.
As much as things seemed the same, they really were different. My mind was shattered into more pieces than I could count, and my body hummed with an energy that had nowhere to go.
I was now unplugged, living with post-traumatic stress (PTS) and barely hanging on.
Desperately working to maintain the appearance of a normal life kept me busy. And running in any direction to keep myself disconnected was my mission. It was a psychosis of sorts.
Now, sitting here, placing words on this page, I try to connect with the feelings from that day.
I can see the images and hear the voices. I can even remember the thoughts.
But those thoughts are devoid of feeling and completely disconnected. They were the shadows of my mind, filled with an energy that became electric and toxic. And they could trigger me in an instant, sending me running for cover.
I thought that isolating, pretending, and hiding was the answer. It wasn’t.
The truth is that my numbness had no end.
It kept me separate and removed from the experience of life. But it also kept me alive and functioning. And it kept me looking “successful” by almost any standard.
Creating the appearance of a normal life and acting the part was the mask that covered the many pieces that were once me. And it was this mask that allowed me to hide from the pain and the shame until I couldn’t take it anymore.
My experience with trauma has led me to believe we can all use these painful events to fuel massive personal growth.
Below are strategies I use regularly to grow and develop.
The idea is that there is no endpoint. It is a continuous journey that involves doing things daily for ourselves to help us connect and grow.
Each of us is unique and some things may work for one but not another.
It is a process of experimentation. Listening to ourselves, trusting ourselves and finding the things that work for us is the goal.
Strategies that have helped me rebuild a life after trauma, fueling massive personal growth
1. Ask for help
This is vital at every step of our journey.
This is what I needed to do to start--and what I need to do regularly when I’m confused, lonely, frustrated, or hurt. I still find this hard to do but I have never regretted asking for help.
2. Diet and nutrition
Eating well and caring for our bodies is vital to healing from trauma.
I have found it to be much more than just eating natural foods rich in the nutrients. It’s about self-care, respecting ourselves, being loving and compassionate with our bodies. It is a sign we want to be better, live better and function at our highest level.
Walking, running, yoga, weight training, anything is good. Just move. This has been my medicine. It is less about the body and more about the mind. It’s about calming, connecting, energizing and balancing.
This is about connection and is one of the keys to successful recovery from trauma.
It is also one of the most challenging areas to navigate.
When we isolate to protect ourselves after trauma, it can be scary to start putting ourselves out there. Relationships are challenging under the best of conditions. Reconnecting with others after trauma takes courage, patience, and understanding.
For me, the fear and anxiety always give me a long list of reasons not to reach out. Facing my fears and moving through them always delivers rewards. Sometimes the rewards are clear. But often I may not recognize them until many days, months, or years have passed.
Being patient is the way, but it’s not always easy. Going slowly and staying connected with myself has been the best strategy for me.
Safety, trust, and compassion for ourselves is the way.
We also need to realize that some relationships may not survive--and that’s ok. I have had many relationships that I believed were good just drift away.
The fact is that we are changed; we have a new appreciation and respect for life and living. We have experienced things that others cannot comprehend. It’s not their fault, but sometimes we need to move on. This can be especially challenging with family, but sometimes disconnecting from toxic people is best for us no matter who they are.
Mindfulness, meditation, and grounding: these are powerful skills that have been life-changing and life-giving for me.
Learning to connect with ourselves, staying present, and being in the moment is nothing short of incredible. Each moment in life becomes a gift and you begin to appreciate all the little things that you probably never noticed.
Trauma separates us, while mindfulness and meditation connect us.
5. Sharing your story
This is a special experience and something to do only when you feel the time is right. It also must be done in a safe, loving, and supportive environment.
It took me 14 years to sit down in front of a group of people and share my trauma. Though I knew I was ready, thinking about it paralyzed me with fear. And when I was doing it I could barely catch my breath, feeling frozen like the day of the attack.
Once I was finished, the feeling was indescribable. I had become free.
Our pain lives in the dark. It craves separation and dreads exposure. When we shine a light on our trauma, it loses its power over us, and we become strong, resilient, and gain perspective. Our anxiety and fears drift away and we become free.
The day we realize our traumas don’t own us or define us is the day we find peace.
6. Facing Fears
This is difficult, but the rewards are massive. After trauma, we can become locked in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. In my case, I became frozen and numb and constantly ran, always looking for ways to stay removed from my experience.
When we shed our skin and begin to recover from trauma the world may seem dangerous. The smallest tasks can be filled with anxiety and fear. I was constantly paranoid, assessing every angle of every situation all the time.
That line “the only way out is through” is the strategy here.
Little by little, stepping out of your comfort zone, completing tasks-even something as simple as a phone call--going to the store, getting a coffee will lead to a new strength. It may seem small at first, but, over time, you will be amazed at the transformation.
I believe that to face our fears we need to be using the other strategies I have discussed, giving us many tools to manage our emotions as we step out into the world.
When we face our fears and break through to new experiences it is a powerful reminder of our resilience and our growth. It lets us know that we are not only surviving but growing and moving to places that we could never have dreamed of prior to our trauma.
7. Taking risks
In time, as we connect with ourselves and learn to listen and trust ourselves again, we can take risks.
When I say risk I don’t mean climbing Mt. Everest or jumping out of a plane.
What I mean is to take the small risks that exist in everyday life.
Maybe it’s going on a date, or a new activity, or jumping into a work project that you would have never before tried. It’s about stepping out, learning to embrace discomfort, and growing because of it.
Trauma makes us strong. It takes us to a place where the possibilities are limitless.
The belief in something other than ourselves is something I found after trauma. It doesn’t have to be religion, though it can be if that’s your thing.
Knowing that there is something larger than myself keeps things in perspective and keeps me humble. It also lets me know I don’t have to do it all.
Spirituality has given me new strength and has helped me to appreciate other perspectives. It has helped me to be more complete in my thinking, and it has helped me to accept people and situations as they are. It has also given me the faith to stop trying to control everything and believe things are exactly as they should be.
9. Reading, writing, learning
This has been vital to my success. Reading is relaxing and educational, and it opens our minds to other thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. It allows us to view our life experience and trauma in new ways, appreciating the many gifts our experience has given us.
There is an endless supply of ideas, perspectives, and valuable experiences on the pages of books. I’m always reading something and always listening to an audiobook. Podcasts are excellent, too. There are many skilled interviewers that tap into the life experience of others from around the world. Listening to these experiences and struggles has given me insight, perspective, and hope when it comes to my own trauma. It has been medicine to help me heal in ways I never thought possible.
Writing is powerful. It takes our thoughts and makes them real. Placing them on a page, and out into the world, shows us what they are. It gives us perspective on the thoughts that swirl around in the corners of our minds.
In my experience, the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that permeated my mind were often extreme, twisted, illogical, and chaotic. Once on the page, they become clear. Writing is cathartic, painful, sad, joyous, and beautiful. Writing is about growth, love, and acceptance for ourselves.
10. Gratitude and helping others
Trauma can really enhance your appreciation for life. For me, this took many years, but once there, my appreciation for the smallest things became massive.
A walk, time with your loved ones, a meal, a coffee. I have found small moments often take on incredible meaning. Research has shown that gratitude has many positive effects on our mental and physical health, and I believe this to be true. Having a daily gratitude list can get you started.
In time, life just gets better. Whatever your situation is there are always things to be grateful for.
Ultimately we all find what we seek. If you look for the good and the blessings in your life, you will find them. If you look for the negative, you will find that too.
Helping others is a powerful tool. Whether it’s volunteering or helping friends and family, it only accelerates our healing. Giving some of ourselves to others, enriching their lives, and making them smile can be life-changing.
Together we are one.
When we connect in a giving away, without judgment, and without any expectation, we complete the circle of humanity and make ourselves whole.
Connecting and helping in this way may be the ultimate medicine to heal ourselves and fuel massive personal growth.
Ultimately, trauma can be an incredible journey of self-exploration, healing, and a life you could have never imagined
After the September 11th attacks, I believed my life was over, and that was how I was living. What I now know, is that, after that day, my life had just begun.
Facing my demons and my trauma has been both the most difficult and the most rewarding experience of my life.
Knowing myself and the world in an honest and enlightened way has been a gift.
The truth is that everything is better. I’m not saying that the challenges are gone and that it’s all sunshine. Because it isn’t. Life is still life.
What I am saying is that the challenges of life are manageable when we are healthy and whole.
I always thought I was unique and special--and that my suffering and pain were something only carried. In my mind I was alone, and I believed isolating and staying alone kept me safe.
The irony was that this was the most dangerous place to be.
Once I realized I wasn’t that special, and that so many others suffered just like me, I was free to connect, explore and learn how to heal and thrive.
This fostered a growth mindset in me and enhanced my life in every way, and has ultimately led to massive personal growth—something we all can achieve.
Sean Fogler is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. His primary focus is health care and blockchain technology with a special interest in mental health and addiction. Sean was at ground zero during the September 11th attacks at the World Trade Center and developed PTSD. Through the written word Sean aims to share his journey and shed light on the mental health and addiction issues of our day. You can read more of his writing at www.seanfogler.com.