I was wrong about post-traumatic growth.  For more than a decade I taught yoga teachers and healthcare professionals about trauma, post-traumatic stress and how yoga practices should include the five tools of Mindful Resilience and can support the journey from post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic growth. 

I taught what was my limited understanding at the time, that extremely challenging life events can result in trauma and post-traumatic stress, but that they can also result in resilience and positive psychological changes.  I emphasized the life of meaning and purpose and inspiration and living in alignment with your values and goals that occurs in the post-traumatic growth phase of PTSD recovery.  While post-traumatic growth (PTG) does include these things and the many benefits essential for successful PTG, I now understand that the fuller picture is a little more complicated. 

I now know post-traumatic stress recovery and post-traumatic growth in a new way.  After running Veterans Yoga Project for more than a decade, I left the organization at the end of 2022 to delve more fully into therapy and healing work for my own post-traumatic stress disorder, that for various reasons had gone unaddressed for decades and was now destroying my heart, mind, body, and relationships.  Through more than a year of intensive therapy and healing work, including regular psychotherapy and various healing journeys, I have moved through the phases of PTSD recovery and I have learned that post-traumatic growth isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.  There’s a lot of rain, storms and flooding too.   

The Three Phases of PTSD Recovery

Recovery from PTSD often starts with the task of stabilization, grounding, and symptoms management.  This is Phase 1. It makes sense that before doing the hard work of processing and digesting the traumatic event with all of its after-effects, it is necessary to put needed tools and supports into place.  Those supports include tools to help regulate the mind, body, and emotions, as well as the external supports that include time, space, and caring others.  In this phase, the tools of Mindful Resilience build direct psychophysiological resources. Meditation strengthens attention and control of the mind; Mindful Movement creates strength, flexibility, and stability in the body; breathwork strengthens and tones and brings resilience to the nervous system.  This strengthening of the mind, body and spirit allows you to more gracefully manage life’s inevitable, ordinary and extraordinary challenges while bringing relief from PTSD symptoms such as sleeplessness, mood swings, and chronic pain.

The real work of PTSD recovery comes from processing and digesting the effects the traumatic event had on your mind, body, and spirit.  This is Phase 2 and it often means creating the conditions that allow you to re-experience the sensations, emotions, and thoughts that were present at the time of the traumatic event.  The re-experiencing allows you to re-integrate those sensations, emotions, and thoughts into your adult sense of self, healing the parts of you that were injured by that traumatic experience.  This can result in the healing of the core wounds that created the dysfunctions that mark the PTSD experience.  

Part of my Phase 2 Journey included participation in a 10-day silent vipassana meditation retreat.  I sat on my meditation cushion and re-directed my attention back to my body moment-by-moment, for hours and hours each day.  After a few days, with nothing else to distract me, my mind began to reacquaint me with many memories that had been long forgotten.  Many of these memories are what some would call “small t traumas”.  While some memories were seemingly insignificant, other memories were painful, and included experiences of grief, embarrassment, shame, and regret.  And as I sat with each of these arising small trauma memories, and repeatedly returned my attention to the sensations in my body, a feeling of tightness somewhere in my body, most often in my belly, would suddenly release. 
As if all of the stresses that kept my stomach in knots, one-by-one, released itself into the SPACE my mind had created.  Besides feeling better in my body than I had in years, I created the mental and emotional space and practice I needed for my eventual reacquaintance with those big-T Traumas that have created so much pain and dysfunction in my life.  

Once the injured parts of you have experienced healing, there is still work to do.  Enter into Phase 3 – Ongoing Integration. Here you define your personal mission and purpose.  Aligning thoughts and behaviors with your values and goals.  

This was the part of PTSD recovery that I didn’t fully understand.  My own Phase 2 work brought about a very real healing of my traumatized parts. I felt different.  I felt unburdened.  I felt a sense of freedom from the confusion and the pain.  But that wasn’t the end of the journey.  It wasn’t as if I all of a sudden relinquished all of my old patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. On the contrary, when on autopilot, which is most of the time, I noticed that I often still thought, acted, and interacted in the ways that my old, traumatized self did. I still avoided people and eye contact and social responsibilities.  I still isolated myself and kept relationships at a safe distance.   I still numbed myself with drugs and alcohol.  For me post-traumatic growth sometimes feels like I have a brand new record player, but only old scratched records to play on it.  

But with practice, both on and off the mat, I have begun to make real changes to the way I think, feel, and behave.  Now I can often notice when I start to play those old scratched records.  I feel the lack of congruence between those old songs and who I now know myself to be.  Each time I sit to meditate or move on my yoga mat it’s like I am fixing the scratches on my records, allowing me to hear the music that plays naturally, unencumbered by traumatic residue.  That gives me the space I need to make different choices.  Those choices are often uncomfortable at first.  But as I make those better choices for myself and willingly experience that discomfort, I grow.  As I expand my comfort zone, I notice that I have developed a kinder, more compassionate relationship with myself.  I am still a work in progress, but the work is lighter.  It can still be extremely challenging some days, but each morning, I create a space for myself on my yoga mat where I can experience all parts of myself, without trying to be something different.  

The journey of post-traumatic growth is a challenging and deeply personal process. It is not a simple ascent into positivity but a complex and often painful transformation that requires time, patience, and support. Mindfulness and yoga offer valuable tools for navigating this journey. By fostering present-moment awareness, emotional regulation, and physical reconnection, these practices can help individuals manage their trauma, paving the way for meaningful growth and transformation.  Life will always include days where the sky is dark and stormy.  But the journey also has its sunshine and rainbows.