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Distressing Experiences & Growth

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

We use the term trauma to describe distressing experiences especially ones over which we have no control. But persisting distress is not assured - in fact personal growth after traumatic experience is more common. This week have been taking a look at how to manage and overcome distressing experiences.


When we are in an experience over which we have no control - like lockdown - instead of focusing on the things we cannot do we can create circumstances which give us back a sense of agency and control. The simplest way to do this is through establishing a routine. Routine gives us many things: A feeling of safety and predictability - extra-important at a time like this; distraction from worries; a sense of purpose; and enjoyment.


Avoidance of difficult settings, experiences, thoughts, or emotions, is the cause of distress. While it gives us short term relief, in fact it causes more problems than it solves in the long run - like an addiction the doses must get higher and the feared thing becomes more frightening. This week I'll talk about how to recognise and manage avoidance of difficult memories.


People - especially smart people - often believe that they can think their way out of their problems. This is occasionally true if the problem is a very narrow, technical problem. In all other cases THINKING IS A NIGHTMARE - especially under conditions of high emotion (anger, anxiety, depression). In those cases thinking tends to become rumination - the circular, emotional, tumble dryer type of thinking that resolves nothing. Start to notice this type of unhelpful emotion. Then there is a 2-stage process:

1. Sit with the distress first - don't push it away. Remember avoidance is the cause of many of our problems;

2. Then intentionally bring attention elsewhere - to something enjoyable, distracting, engaging, or to a specific practice like mindfulness.


Sometimes we feel distressed after an event because the story we have told ourselves confirms our belief that we have no power or agency. Practice writing out the story you are telling yourself in different ways. This is similar to reframing that we discussed before. Sometimes this can lead to a new story which makes more sense to you and gives you a sense of meaning from your experience - rather than a distress and a sense of powerlessness.

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