March 4, 2024

Post-Traumatic Expansion: A Compassionate Practice for those who are Navigating the Aftermath of Trauma. ~ Dr. Tracy King


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In the aftermath of trauma, the journey toward healing and rediscovery often sparks a dialogue about the phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth (PTG).

This is a theory that was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s to explain how those enduring psychological trauma can often see beneficial growth after this.

PTG is not about pretending that everything is well or forcing yourself to shift before being ready. It’s a nuanced and personal journey that honours the complexity of emotions, the depth of pain, and the necessity of feeling emotions deeply. It’s crucial to give yourself permission to sit with discomfort, process grief, anger, and fear, and acknowledge the rawness of vulnerability without judgment.

PTG evolves organically and authentically, allowing you to navigate your healing path at your own pace, honouring your unique experiences, and acknowledging that growth is a gradual process that unfolds in its own time. Feelings should not be rushed or suppressed, but rather welcomed as integral parts of the healing journey, paving the way for genuine transformation and resilience from within.

This PTG term, while aiming to encapsulate the positive psychological changes experienced after adversity, inadvertently also carries an implicit obligation—an expectation to emerge from our adversity not only unscathed but enhanced. Whilst of course we want to support and build up those who have experienced trauma in life, we do not want to give a message that where they are at is wrong if it is not on a trajectory of change and growth.

The growth perspective can shadow the natural, non-linear process of healing with an unintended weight of “should,” which can lead to a sense of inadequacy or shame for those navigating a different route.

I don’t believe that is what was at all intended by the emergence of the theory, but I have had so many clients I work with explaining how this places them under pressure to “recover” and “be strong” and to suddenly add value to the world. In response to the clinical feedback I’m getting, I believe it is time we transition our language and mindset toward a more inclusive and pressure-free concept of post-traumatic expansion (PTE).

Trauma recovery is rarely linear, often marked by periods of progress, stagnation, and sometimes regression. The expectation of growth can become a goal for success, where any deviation from this perceived upward movement might be seen as a failure. This perspective can exacerbate feelings of shame and self-judgment for those who are doing their best to navigate the aftermath of trauma.

Expansion, in contrast, implies a broadening or extending in various directions. It acknowledges the complexity of the human response to trauma and validates all experiences as part of the healing journey. Post-traumatic expansion encompasses not just the acquisition of new strengths or insights but also the deepening of empathy, the acceptance of vulnerabilities, and the embracing of new perspectives on life, relationships, and self-identity.

The concept of expansion feels like a more compassionate framework that provides more of a “trauma-informed” container. In trauma-informed practice, an invitation is recommended rather than a statement of what will be. Forming coherent narratives is important for the integration of healing. This is what makes the words we use a key consideration. When we experience trauma we tend to shrink ourselves and become small and therefore as we recover even the smallest shift can serve as some form of expansion. I see the image of a closed flower bud reopening as the healing begins.

What does the idea of Expansion offer us?

1. Inclusivity and Acceptance: Expansion allows for a diverse range of experiences and outcomes, offering a more inclusive framework that honours each person’s unique journey. It moves away from the binary of growth/no growth to recognise the multifaceted nature of healing.

2. Removes Pressure: By focusing on expansion, we remove the implicit pressure to “improve” in the wake of trauma. This shift can alleviate feelings of shame or inadequacy for those whose experience doesn’t align with a traditional growth narrative.

3. Encourages Exploration: Expansion suggests a journey of exploration, where learning and discovery occur in many dimensions. It encourages individuals to explore their inner world and external environment, finding meaning and connection in varied forms.

4. Acknowledges Complexity: Trauma impacts people in complex ways, influencing emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. The concept of expansion recognises this complexity, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of post-traumatic changes.

5. Promotes Resilience: By embracing a broad definition of post-traumatic changes, the idea of expansion fosters resilience. It highlights the capacity to adapt and transform in the face of adversity, viewing changes as part of an ongoing process of becoming.

Moving Forward with Expansion

As we continue to support those on their journey through and beyond trauma, it is crucial that our language reflects a compassionate, pressure-free approach. Post-traumatic expansion offers a framework that honours the breadth and depth of human experience, promoting a healing path marked by exploration, acceptance, and resilience. By shifting our discourse, we can help alleviate the burden of expectation, inviting a more accepting and empowering narrative for all who navigate the aftermath of trauma.

In embracing post-traumatic expansion, we acknowledge that the true measure of our journey is not in the heights we reach but in the breadth of our experiences, the depth of our understanding, and the openness of our hearts.


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