Four and a half years ago I broke my back.
I could still walk (like a 90 year-old), but that walk was like stepping across a minefield. Any minute the broken edge of bone could have severed a nerve with devastating consequences that I was all too aware of. I had been fit and independent. A diver. A mother. A coach. I was a strong, active woman, but suddenly the security of my world was shattered, and I had to face the possibility of one day not being able to walk. I had suffered a trauma and it nearly broke me.
Four and a half years later, I have graduated with distinction from the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology (MAPPCP) programme at the University of East London, having combined two of my passions in my research (scuba diving and positive psychology); presented this research at three international conferences (so far); am co-authoring a book chapter on Adventure and Posttraumatic Growth; am a coach on Leadership courses for INSEAD, a leading business school in Paris; and am on the faculty of the IPPC, working with some of the brightest and exciting colleagues I could ever hope to be working with. It was unexpected, but I have experienced a phenomenon called posttraumatic growth (PTG).
So, what is posttraumatic growth?
Put simply, most people bend under stress, like a tree in a high wind, returning to roughly the same place as they started, even if a slightly different shape (this is resilience). Others break, suffering long term consequences of this stress or trauma (think PTSD). A small number of people, because of the centrality of how the trauma affects them and the struggle they have in coming to terms with this, actually experience permanent growth in areas such as the quality of their relationships; personal strengths; their awareness of possibilities in life that they had not considered before; their appreciation for life; their sense of spirituality; and even their relationship with their body. Now growth doesn’t come to all these areas – it may be only one or two, but the change is permanent, and it comes from the challenges the person has faced adjusting to life after the trauma.
So where were my challenges?
I know I will never take my body, or my life as I know it, for granted again, having almost lost them. Learning to ask for help (and boy was that a hard lesson!) actually improved and deepened my relationships with my family and my close friends. I saw how they cared. On gaining a merit for my first module, while still not being able to sit for no more than 15 minutes, and for the first few weeks being still partially under the soft fog of painkillers, made me realise that a distinction was a real possibility and that I should aim as high as I could, taking in every opportunity that was offered. This was a real mindset shift.
Instead of thinking I wouldn’t get a job or be accepted for a role, I started exercising the bravery that everyone told me I had, and applied anyway, with each success making me aware of other possibilities. Finally, while I went into my surgery knowing that self-regulation and perseverance are not my strongest strengths, I sit here now knowing that without those, I would not have completed the physical rehabilitation. I used my knowledge of coaching to set myself small goals, tracking my progress each day and celebrating the small wins – the first time I walked the block; the first time I climbed the stairs without help; the first time I drove my car again.
This, and the experience of interviewing some incredible people for my dissertation, made me wonder if we could coach for PTG. The answer, I believe is Yes. Therapists have been working with people following trauma for quite some time, and there is growing knowledge of the facilitators of PTG. This has now led me to develop a workshop for the IPPC on Coaching for Post Traumatic Growth, stepping from behind the scenes to a front of house position, something else I would not have predicted four and a half years ago.
If you want to know more about coaching for post traumatic growth, look out for the workshop in October 2021 which is part of the IPPC Enrichment Series, or check out the recording on this website.