How We Grow Through What We Go Through: Self-Compassion Practices for Post-Traumatic Growth
“a user friendly, practical guide that explains how to attain and maintain resilience by developing a learnable set of life skills that, with practice, become part of who we are and help us leave behind who we were.”
In spite of its subtitle, readers need not be sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in order to benefit from How We Grow Through What We Go Through. Anyone experiencing undue anxiety, depression, or garden variety stress—without being a trauma survivor—can learn how to better manage their “baggage” and improve the quality of their lives through engaging in new thoughts and behaviors that rewire the brain toward resilience.
Christopher Willard PsyD has written a user friendly, practical guide that explains how to attain and maintain resilience by developing a learnable set of life skills that, with practice, become part of who we are and help us leave behind who we were. The fact that Dr. Willard, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of more than 18 publications for adults and children, wrote this book during the first year of the COVID pandemic proves that with the right attitude, life’s lemons can indeed become lemonade.
Well-researched and packed with simple exercises and thought-provoking questions, the book is divided into four parts. Willard’s tone is encouraging, gentle, patient, and compassionate. He explains the terminology of trauma treatment as he goes along, such as trauma itself, neuroplasticity, emotional re-regulation, post-traumatic stress disorder, resilience, self-compassion, and post-traumatic growth.
In Chapter 1, Wired for Resilience, Willard describes our hard-wired stress responses as The Four Fs—hyperarousal, including fighting or fleeing; and hypoarousal, involving freezing and what he calls the “fuck it” reaction—and helps us explore our particular trauma-induced style or combination thereof.
In Chapter 2, Your Resilient Body, he explains what happens physiologically when we experience trauma: “Our built-in stress and trauma responses are there to protect us during and after a painful experience, and they protect us from future trauma . . . The defenses we fire up under threat are normal and evolutionary. They helped our ancestors and us survive” because they were adaptive. He warns, however, that, “Over time when this response becomes automatic,” it often “outlives its usefulness” and becomes maladaptive.
Such automaticity puts us at a disadvantage today because we’re using outdated responses to deal with current situations that are similar to threats we experienced when we were more vulnerable and had fewer internal resources. To update our tools, Willard teaches readers effective approaches to respond to stress in the present, such as attending to and befriending emotions rather than running from or trying to overpower them, engaging in healthy sleep habits, using power postures and walking practices, eating mindfully, and learning techniques to regulate breath.
In Chapter 3, Your Resilient Mind, Willard talks about obvious and subtle forms of trauma’s impact on the brain: “Under chronic stress and long after, people may struggle with everyday tasks like making decisions, organization, and planning.” The critical point he’s making is one that people ignorant of trauma’s effect on the mind often miss—how both “Big T” trauma and “Little t” trauma can scramble the brain and manifest as depression, anxiety, or Attention Deficit Disorder.
He introduces three concepts that are major foci in the book: mindfulness, “paying attention to our experience of the present moment with acceptance and nonjudgment”; mindful self-compassion, “the practice of recognizing and naming our experience of suffering”; and positive psychology, “the study and practice of flourishing and thriving beyond baseline survival.” He then breaks down each concept with examples and practice exercises to help us understand how each component moves us forward to feeling safe and empowered.
Chapter 4, Your Resilient Heart, describes how trauma isolates us: Due to illness, injury or abuse, ashamed or in pain, we may feel more vulnerable and less safe with others. Willard stresses that these reactions to trauma may further traumatize and emotionally dysregulate us, when “To stay safe relationally, we either shrink into isolation or overcompensate with aggression, fearing judgment or rejection of others.”
To develop resilience, Willard advises finding trustworthy, like-minded people through friendships, family, or a structured group or community. Another path is silencing our critical inner voice and replacing it with compassionate self-talk that acknowledges our authentic experience, connects it to others, and extends kindness and empathy toward ourselves. A third path is setting firmer boundaries with others while focusing on taking effective care of ourselves.
Willard also discusses the damage done by cultural trauma—being mistreated or feeling invisible because of sex, gender preference, race, religion, or ethnicity. He stresses that movements that promote diversity, justice, and equality and groups that teach about and support mental health are psychologically reparative and healing because they make us part of a compassionate, resilient community. Through positive connections, our new, empowering experiences are another step forward in righting the wrongs of our past and reshaping our present and future.