This is a fantastic interview with Dr. Laura Copley, a trauma specialist, who focuses on post-traumatic growth and resilience. We go through many important facts and misconceptions about trauma. We talk about the difference between resilience and post-traumatic growth. We even dive into a couple exercises that people currently contending with trauma reactions can use to start living life on their terms.
Getting to know Dr. Laura Copley
Why the interest in trauma?
It found her. During her master’s training, Laura worked with a lot of children who were removed from home and placed in foster care or with family members due to incarcerated parents. She started to notice trends where some of the children were very resilient while others manifested issues. This put her in the realm of complex trauma and trying to figure out why certain kids exhibit more resilience and post-traumatic growth than others.
Post-traumatic growth and resiliency
Laura talks about what post-traumatic growth and resiliency are and how they are different, even though they are often used interchangeably. Resiliency is when the person is already equipped to get through something and they are not traumatized by the event that would traumatize someone else. It doesn’t mean it’s not painful, but they don’t manifest the larger, more devastating symptoms. Post-traumatic growth is where the individual has experienced PTSD, but through that process, they are able to transcend to a higher level of functioning than if they didn’t have the trauma in the first place. They had the experience of being traumatized but somehow have the ability to pull themselves out and find a greater meaning, deeper connection, and empathy with the experience and the new possibilities that might lie ahead.
Laura explains how they are linked – post-traumatic growth seems to help you be more resilient to future traumas. Once you learn you are capable of overcoming something, you have greater confidence in meeting future challenges. In her practice, she aims to start implementing things she has found in her and other’s research to facilitate post-traumatic growth rather than just getting through PTSD.
It’s NOT about being thankful for trauma
Sometimes people react strongly to the idea of post-traumatic growth because they WERE traumatized and that’s such a personal thing. But laura explains how it’s not about being thankful for the trauma. Post-traumatic growth is not about diminishing what an individual went through and it is important to establish that wherever they are in their trauma recovery totally makes sense for them, but for some people, there is this opportunity for growth. This idea needs to be introduced into the conversation at the right time depending on the individual. Being heard and validated are some of the factors that affect post-traumatic growth, so that’s an important first step when working with someone who has been traumatized. Laura talks about this process in more depth.
Common misconceptions about trauma
Laura talks about some of the common misconceptions she comes across in her practice.
Trauma is not the event that happened to you. It’s the body’s response to the event.
She explains how it’s crucial that, as therapists, we don’t label something as traumatizing just because it seems terrible to us. As clinicians, we need to recognize we have power to influence how they understand their own story. We need to be careful not to make assumptions about an event and how it affected. Just because an experience might sound terrible to us does not mean that is what their experience was.
Trauma is your, unique, response to something.
Some people can be traumatized by something that we wouldn’t necessarily consider traumatizing. Or equally, something devastating, they might have been resilient. An example near her is that at some colleges where there has been relationship violence and sexual assault, parents sometimes are too influential in assuming that their child should be traumatized by the events that happened, pressing an influence over how they ‘should’ be acting. Laura provides a space for individuals to authentically tell their story, how they perceived it, how they hold it, and that is more important than saying what it should have looked like and how they should have responded.
I believe you
Laura explains how rather than making assumptions about how an event made someone feel, simply tell them, “I believe you.” Holding that space that they hear the story and that they are believed. Avoid taking on the pain and ask support questions and statements like “I’m here for you”, “is there anything I can do for you right now”. This way you’re not exaggerating or telling them how it should’ve felt, and you’re taking care of your emotions at the same time. If you start off from this point, you will see the other person’s reactions and intuitively know where to take it from there.
Post-traumatic growth with Dr. Laura Copley
We move on to talk more specifically about post-traumatic growth and Laura shares advice on what people can do to try to work toward that. The similarities between people that achieve post-traumatic growth boils down to finding one person to ground them, hear them, and inspire them. Their anchor. It could be someone like a friend, family member, coach, counselor, etc. and Laura’s work is around creating that relationship, whether it be through herself, or through the individual’s circle of friends and family.
Laura also brings in some positive psychology concepts such as “meaning making” and helping someone recognize the tools they have due to the trauma and what they have discovered about themselves – Accessing the parts of them that are infinite and outlast the trauma. Laura explains how this is achieved without falling into the trap of thinking that “everything happens for a reason and describes a technique she uses called “parts work”. Parts work is a process that physically maps out how the different aspects of themselves both help and sabotage them. The goal is to teach clients how to live on purpose instead of having life happen to them. They build mastery step by step by identifying their coping skills and applying them in small ways.
Laura talks about this practice in more depth and gives some small examples: using your voice to give an opinion about where to go to dinner, telling your boss that you want to take a vacation – examples that will be helpful when using your voice has characteristically seemed risky to you. These small steps are specific to the individual, drawing on their own personal experiences. Laura highlights how this sort of work is powerful within even two sessions and is an approach which is good for post-traumatic growth. It makes a good compliment to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which focuses more on getting through the trauma. “Parts work” may also be advertised as “internal family systems” or “gestalt” therapy.
Changing your perspective
Laura explains how it’s always important to realize that these painful reactions make sense and there are parts of the reaction, such as anxiety, that actually try to help you. She talks about how if you can create a new relationship with how your body is responding, and stop labeling every reaction as bad, that in itself can help alleviate the pain, depression, anxiety etc. Again, that’s not to say that what has happened to you wasn’t bad, but that your bodies reaction isn’t necessarily bad, and actually makes sense. While it hurts and it’s painful, try to look at another perspective of how your body is trying to help you.
Laura talks a bit about the term “corrective experiences”. If you had a negative experience, you can show up to a new experience that invokes that old experience, in a new way. This can act as a healing process to help decrease the negative association you have with that experience. Sometimes it takes a corrective experience to move through trauma and realize that things can happen a different way. Laura describes how counseling can also be a corrective experience, especially with an individual with complex trauma who may have never found a safe relationship with someone who was able to listen to their story authentically and non-judgmentally.
Laura explains the term “complex trauma” in more depth and how it can be stickier to recognize and move on from, due to its chronic nature and the “unconscious agreements” made with the world – i.e. the ways in which we have learned from our experience of how the world works, being guided by the gut rather than rationality. We begin to align ourselves with these lessons and expect people to hurt, misuse us etc.
In the midst of trauma
Laura offers some advice for people who are still in the thick of it and still can’t escape their traumatic environment yet. Again, trying to identify one person that gets it and can be your ally is so important. Then you need to work on establishing a vision for yourself that will outlast this trauma. The research doesn’t necessarily suggest that this anchor person needs to be “in person”. Therefore, online interaction might be a great resource for people to get validation if there aren’t people in their physical environment that could be their anchor.
Taking in helpful content can also have this effect. Maybe hearing someone else talk about what they are going through gives them enough of a spark to get to the next step. The more content that you take in, the higher your chances are that you will come across that one statement that you need to hear to give you that subtle change you need. You don’t need to know where you’re going, but just by taking one more step, paths and opportunities will open up. You only need to think of your next step.
Opening yourself to post-traumatic growth
For people that are one step down the line and might be starting to cope with their triggers but not at the point of seeing a counselor, Laura rounds off her interview by offering a technique which can be used to help with the growth process. Write down a symptom you are having. Write down the name of it. Then write down how it is hindering you. Then challenge yourself to think, if the feeling (personified) was trying to help you in its own unique way, what would it be telling me? Literally personifying your symptom by giving it a name or a character can be helpful to externalize this process. eg- Bill is an asshole, but if he thought that he was actually helping me, what is it that he would think he is helping with? It’s a great technique to help you conceptualize the issue and think about it in a different light.
That marks the end of an awesome interview with Dr. Laura Copley. I’d like to thank Laura for coming on the show and sharing this unique insight into her work and post-traumatic growth. If you’d like to follow along with Laura, you can check
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