Post Traumatic Growth – Podcast

By LifeStance Health on May 19, 2020

Dwight Thompson: (00:00)
Hi, welcome to Reset Your Mindset by LifeStance Health. Myself, Dwight Thompson, and my co-host, Nichollette Leanza, will bring you conversations with leading LifeStance Health professionals who will help guide you on your journey to positive mental health and well-being. At LifeStance, we believe in the three pillars of mental health, mental flexibility, mindfulness, and resilience.

Dwight Thompson: (00:34)
Welcome everyone. Thank you for joining us again and tuning in to the LifeStance Health Reset Your Mindset podcast. Today, we are really excited to have first time guest, Stephanie Phillips, joining us along with a voice that you have heard on this platform before, with Dr. Omar Elhaj, our Division Director of Special Projects. Dr. Elhaj, welcome back, and Stephanie, welcome to the first time, we are thrilled to have you. Stephanie, before we get started here, would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?

Stephanie Phillips: (01:04)
Sure. I am a licensed, independent social worker in the state of Ohio. I also have my license in Kentucky. Down there I’m considered a licensed clinical social worker. I’ve been practicing for about nine years now. My special focus, I guess I would say, is on trauma. The therapy modality that I use most frequently is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which is known by the acronym EMDR. I also, because of my specific training and the company that I went through for that, I have a mindfulness focus. There are various focuses with EMDR depending on your specific training program, and mine happens to be mindfulness-based.

Stephanie Phillips: (01:53)
Mindfulness principles really dovetail nicely with EMDR in terms of maintaining present awareness and meditation and those kinds of principles. Specifically, I have specific training in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, colloquially known as postpartum depression, postpartum depression and anxiety. Because of my trauma training, I actually have a special niche focus and interest in specifically birth-related trauma. Yeah, I graduated from the University of Kentucky, so I was down, I started my practice down in Kentucky and I’ve been up here in the Cleveland area for just about two years now.

Dwight Thompson: (02:41)
Awesome. Thank you for sharing. You certainly work with a very specific population and incredible work, so we’re thrilled to have you. Dr. Elhaj, for those that maybe not have heard you on this platform again, again, we’re really thankful that you joined us again. Tell us a little about yourself, please.

Dr. Omar Elhaj: (02:58)
Thank Dwight and Nikki for having me. This has been really a wonderful medium the two of you have created to help us spread the word about wellness, about resilience, especially in this era of traumatic change during the COVID-19, so kudos to both of you.

Nicholette Leanza: (03:19)
Thank you.

Dr. Omar Elhaj: (03:20)
I’m a psychiatrist by training specialized in addiction and geriatric care. My passion is for working with people who live with dual diagnosis. I worked in the VA for about five years, and this is where my interests and learning curiosity began with posttraumatic stress disorder. Then that start to grow more into not just militarily-based trauma but traumas that can happen across the lifespan at any aspects. I’m very glad to actually be teaming up with Stephanie today because I cannot wait to hear what she has to say about all the traumas, all that a lot of people dealing with and how we can convert that into a positive. Thank you again for having me.

Dwight Thompson: (04:20)
Yeah, our pleasure and Dr. Elhaj, as always, thank you so much for just some of your backgrounds. Today, we’re going to be talking a lot about posttraumatic growth. You hear posttraumatic, probably the first thing you want to say is stress disorder, but today we’re actually going to talk about posttraumatic growth. Stephanie, we’ll start with you. What is posttraumatic growth?

Stephanie Phillips: (04:44)
Well, posttraumatic growth is a really interesting phenomenon that’s been observed over time. It just, basically in a nutshell, refers to this idea or this observation that people have had over the years that sometimes in the wake of trauma, whether that’s a more single incident trauma that we think of, an assault, a really bad car accident, something that threatens life and limb, or whether it’s maybe something that is a more complex trauma, a trauma event that extends over a greater amount of time, that actually in the wake of enduring some trauma, we actually see people who function better in the wake of that trauma, that they come out of it stronger in some way and just grow. Yeah, posttraumatic growth is it’s right there in the name, just that growth, that better level of functioning or higher level of functioning that we see after people have endured something that is very, very traumatic and difficult and challenging.

Dwight Thompson: (06:03)

Nicholette Leanza: (06:03)
This is a good leeway into what we’ve been going through currently with COVID.

Stephanie Phillips: (06:08)
Yeah, definitely.

Nicholette Leanza: (06:08)
I think we can we collectively say that this has been traumatizing on many different levels, so it makes sense that we’d be pairing posttraumatic growth with COVID and how to navigate this.

Stephanie Phillips: (06:20)
Absolutely, yeah.

Nicholette Leanza: (06:22)
This is where this episode will talk about the good that can come from this, isn’t that right?

Stephanie Phillips: (06:26)
Yeah. I think something like COVID-19 is interesting in the sense that it’s this collective trauma experience. We’re all enduring this big event together. Of course, all of our different experiences, depending on what we’re going through, some of us have lost jobs, some of us are still working, some of us are like in the instance of the class of 2020, whether we’re talking about high school seniors or college seniors, some of us are losing these milestone events that we’ve been looking forward to for years. Some of us are … we’re more living our regular life with relatively mild adjustments. Some of us are working from home, some of us are still working in grocery stores or working in hospitals. It’s interesting to me that we’re all enduring this collective trauma, but at the same time we’re all having a very different experience of it that looks different for all of us.

Nicholette Leanza: (07:31)
Yeah. Very true. Thank you, Stephanie. Dr. Elhaj, please share with us your thoughts about posttraumatic growth.

Dr. Omar Elhaj: (07:38)
I couldn’t agree more with Stephanie. The concept of post growth from a psychological perspective and academic perspectives have been talked about for probably, for the past decade or so, started in the University of North Carolina and Charlotte. When we look at humanity and religions and mythologies across continents and cultures and millennias, the concept that pain and suffering and struggle can spur growth and improvement and advancement has been as long as human existed. They actually have looked at factors that can enhance and nurture that, and one of them is actually spirituality, the other one is social support.

Dr. Omar Elhaj: (08:28)
Some research actually shown that there is a neuro-biological aspects to that especially in terms of how some people respond differently to the stress in the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal cortical pathways and the brain. This is really an all-encompassing experience, and I would love to hear more from Stephanie about how has that been observed in the actual patients that she has seen in the past few months now.

Stephanie Phillips: (09:07)
Yeah. One interesting thing that I seem to notice from my clients is the people that, whether I’ve been seeing them for trauma or whether I was just seeing them for more generalized anxiety, is that they seem to be functioning better in the wake of all of these changes. The interesting thing to me is, at least how I interpret it, is that that is a sign of the type of resilience we see with posttraumatic growth. People who have, they’ve put it in terms of like welcome to my world where I have anxiety. The rest of the world that maybe hasn’t struggled with anxiety hasn’t had problems with trauma are now getting some insight into, according to how they feel, getting some insight into how they feel all the time.

Stephanie Phillips: (10:03)
They seem to be functioning better, they seem to be handling things, and I chalk it up to that resilience that does come as a result of whether it’s trauma or just the skills that you need to build to navigate your way through a world where you feel anxious and you feel like there’s a lot of threats around, and building that resiliency and building those coping skills to manage through life with anxiety or life with trauma symptoms. I think that that really speaks a lot to posttraumatic growth as a concept is that they’re able to know how to navigate this.

Dwight Thompson: (10:45)
Stephanie, your points were very poignant and you’re right, it does speak volumes to the strength that individuals have during this time and during trauma in general and what people are capable of. One thing that was repeatedly mentioned was the buzzword that you hear frequently, which is resilience, and Stephanie, you touched on that quite frequently. Resilience and posttraumatic growth are thought of often as synonymous, but there is a difference that lies between resilience and posttraumatic growth. What would one say to the difference that is there and how they are not necessarily synonymous?

Nicholette Leanza: (11:22)
Let me jump in there because one of the ways I define posttraumatic growth is the meaning we make to our trauma. It’s the lessons we learned and also the meaning and the purpose that it was in our life. I separate that from resilience in the fact that I see it as like bouncing back. It’s how you bounce back is what I see resilience as. It is two separate things, but they definitely interplay together pretty well. One is the bouncing back from the trauma, but the other one, as you bounce back is looking back, what is the lesson learned? What was the meaning that came out of that trauma, which is so key with posttraumatic growth? That’s how I personally would define and differentiate the two for sure.

Dwight Thompson: (12:16)
During trauma, people have the tendency to view themselves as weak, whether it’s during the trauma or after the trauma, and it’s so important to have the outlook on yourself and the introspection to see yourself from a strength-based perspective. Stephanie, what advice would you give to someone when it comes to reframing the way you’re viewing yourself during trauma?

Stephanie Phillips: (12:39)
I think speaking of the whole concept of resilience, sometimes that is, or often I guess I should say, that is one thing that a lot of people can find solace and find the starting point for post traumatic growth is just from that simple fact of “I went through this life-altering sometimes life-threatening experience of this trauma and I made it through, I’m still here, I survived this huge trauma.” That is no small feat. The fact that we are able to survive and, sometimes when we are in the immediate aftermath or the immediate wake of it, just being able to get out of bed, being able to put one foot in front of the other and continue on, and certainly reach out for support, reach out for help, whether it’s just from friends and loved ones or whether it’s from an actual professional, whether it’s seeking therapy, that shows an extraordinary amount of strength and courage to just say I got through this.

Stephanie Phillips: (13:49)
A lot of times that in and of itself can be really healing to just have that recognition of this as something that I can survive, this is something that didn’t break me and didn’t … might’ve slowed me down a little temporarily, but it didn’t stop me.

Nicholette Leanza: (14:10)
Also, what I find is that people don’t realize how strong they are. I think sometimes when they do come out of it and you help them reframe it of like, look at that, you’re stronger than you thought you were. I think that’s so key of the reframe of you’re stronger than you were or you made it through, look at that. I think those are all key reframes to help someone really look at that trauma. Even in this age of COVID and looking at it how, as a society, how, and I think it’s still yet to be determined of how we’re going to continue navigate through it and out of it and lessons learned and stuff about pandemics. Hopefully, we don’t have another pandemic, but lessons learned from this pandemic to hopefully prevent the next one too.

Dr. Omar Elhaj: (14:53)
Nikki, I could not agree with you more, especially about our country and our society. Look at the trauma of the World War II and what we have done through and post of that, the largest industrial expansions, the largest college education that we’ve ever had. As a country, we know how to convert a trauma, a tragedy into an opportunity for growth and to really expand our horizon. I have no doubt that we will be better off post-COVID-19.

Dr. Omar Elhaj: (15:31)
One of the things that I actually talk to my family, to you guys as my colleagues and to my patients is that with all the challenges that we all have faced, I believe that the silver lining that we have all existentially experienced in this trauma has been a growth-enhancing and a tremendous opportunity to, in a way, stop time and think about what really is important to us. Unfortunately for the majority of us, we’ve been so busy with life running and running and running, and a lot of times putting important things on the side because we always convince ourselves that we don’t have time for it, and now with this trauma, has allowed us the time to stop and to think and to re-evaluate what is really important in our life and what is not. I have no doubt that individually and collectively as society we will actually find a tremendous opportunity for posttraumatic growth out of this. I am, to be honest with you, very optimistic about where we’re going to be going in the future.

Dwight Thompson: (16:49)
I love it, and it actually speaks directly to something Stephanie alluded to early on in the recording is the mindfulness piece that I know, Stephanie, you work on and you encourage so much. Stephanie, let me ask you this. History does repeat itself, we’re aware of that, Dr. Elhaj gives plenty examples for it. Can you prepare for post traumatic growth?

Stephanie Phillips: (17:14)
I think you can prepare for the unexpected to an extent. One phrase that has really stuck with me is a phrase that it was originally apparently in the movie from the 1960s, “Zorba the Greek”, where he talks about the full catastrophe of life. Jon Kabat-Zinn actually used that for one of his book titles called “Full Catastrophe Living”. The whole concept is this idea of bad things are going to happen in our lives, good things are going to happen in our lives and embracing it all and saying, “Okay, I’m going to take the good, I’m going to kind of sit with the good, I’m going to enjoy the good. When the bad comes, I’m going to sit with that as well, and I’m going to recognize that it’s going to pass. Things are going to get easier, it may be really, really hard to see that right now. Things are going to get easier at some point.”

Stephanie Phillips: (18:13)
I think just recognizing that and rolling with that sense of like waves on an ocean, sometimes things are a little calmer, sometimes things are a little more peaceful, sometimes things are a little more rocky, but just embracing the idea that bad things are going to happen, good things are going to happen, neutral things are going to happen, and I can handle it. I can just take it as it comes. I think that’s where we’re able to prepare, so to speak, and leave ourselves open. Like Dr. Elhaj was saying, leave ourselves open to that idea that something positive can come out of things. Sitting with the difficult emotions when they come, but also recognizing those positives, yeah, having more time to do things that we might want to do and being open to just whatever comes along, I think that’s how we prepare.

Nicholette Leanza: (19:17)
Stephanie, wow, that was amazing. Very well put, thank you.

Dr. Omar Elhaj: (19:21)
Yes, it was really well-put.

Nicholette Leanza: (19:23)
Dr. Elhaj, Stephanie, thank you both for joining us today and imparting your knowledge on this really interesting and important topic of post traumatic growth. You both, through your work with your own patients I can see you’re just such mini-makers to them, and I definitely appreciate the work you do with your patients.

Dr. Omar Elhaj: (19:43)
Thank you.

Stephanie Phillips: (19:43)
Thank you.

Dr. Omar Elhaj: (19:44)
Thank you guys. Keep up the wonderful work.

Stephanie Phillips: (19:45)

Nicholette Leanza: (19:47)
Dwight, this was an amazing episode.

Dwight Thompson: (19:53)
Yes, it was.

Nicholette Leanza: (19:53)
We could definitely talk to them all day, Dr. Elhaj and Stephanie, for sure. I think a few of my takeaways are how applicable posttraumatic growth is during this time of COVID and all of us navigating it, how it is to grow from this, usually like coping skills as we’re navigating it, our mindfulness skills and also what meaning we can make, and I think that’s the key to the posttraumatic growth. What about yourself?

Dwight Thompson: (20:20)
Right. Yeah. For me, it’s honestly pretty simple, and you’re right, we could talk to them all day, they were just a plethora of knowledge. I got to be candid. For me, it was pretty simple. It sounds so cliche, but Stephanie just reiterated it and reiterated it. This too shall pass. I know that we’ve had a few episodes where we’re talking, our discussion is centered around COVID-19, but it is important to be mindful of the climate we’re in, and I felt like this episode did a great job of showing that this too shall pass and there is some optimism to be had. I just thought Stephanie and Dr. Elhaj had some very poignant words about posttraumatic growth and the strength that lies within us, it’s just a matter of tapping into it.

Nicholette Leanza: (21:06)
Yes, for sure, can’t agree with you more, that’s for sure.

Dwight Thompson: (21:10)
Thank you everyone for listening. We really appreciate you tuning in to the Reset Your Mindset podcast by LifeStance Health. Our podcast can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Anchor, or wherever you get your podcasts. On behalf of the entire LifeStance family, we wish everyone good health and safety, and until next time.