In a world bombarded by wars, pandemics and civil unrest, how do individuals dealing with traumatic experiences make it through? How do they overcome the pain?
There is a way through because people are resilient, and it starts with the right strategies, one called Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG), where a positive change can occur in people after they overcome a highly stressful event, according to Sharon Cyrus-Savary, LMHC, Director of CA START (Systemic, Therapeutic, Assessment, Resources, and Treatment) East Bay and San Andreas.
Cyrus-Savary talks about how individuals can thrive if they learn how to look at life and the environment around them with a positive lens. “Suffering doesn’t have to debilitate us. We can find ways to endure through that suffering,” said Cyrus-Savary.
Cyrus-Savary specializes in a multidisciplinary approach to treatment that includes positive psychology, strength-based approaches, and trauma-informed care. Her experience includes work in intellectual and developmental disabilities, autism, forensic psychology, child welfare, substance use, and family therapy.
She recognizes the challenges of achieving Post-Traumatic Growth with populations that have developmental disabilities (I/DD), autism (ASD), and those with mental illness. But she believes through positive psychology post-traumatic growth can be achieved.
“The root of what I do is to support families as they navigate their loved ones with I/DD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),” said Cyrus-Savary, who collaborates with California’s regional centers, community stakeholders and hospitals, and various agencies to coordinate those efforts.
The research also backs up her work. Research suggests that between 30-70% of people who experienced trauma also report positive change and growth after their traumatic experience.
This information has helped clinicians look for ways to build support and resilience among some of the most vulnerable in society. One approach has been to focus on five key areas of Post-Traumatic Growth that have led to positive outcomes.
They are Spiritual Development also explained as “I accept”; Personal Strength described as “I can”; Close Relationships labelled “I cherish”; Greater Appreciation for Life as “I thank”; and New Possibilities described as “I dream.”
With this process, people can learn new skills and ways of working through and coping with their suffering, as they build confidence and learn to rely more on themselves.
The first step toward these five elements on the recovery path involves what Cyrus-Savary describes as three ingredients: perceived safety, empowerment, and connection.
When a person feels safe psychologically and emotionally, the individual is more willing to open up and engage. This leads to a sense of empowerment. The person finds her voice and is able to make choices, which might be through a simple question such as “Would you like to go for a walk?” This allows the person to make her own decision and build a connection.
“Researchers found when these three things happened, results were quite profound,” said Cyrus-Savary, referring to the start of the Post-Traumatic Growth recovery process.
This strategy helps individuals with I/DD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and mental illness develop a positive identity. And she is quick to point out that this is not a demographic that often gets a job, gets married, or drives. They miss out on these milestones, but it doesn’t mean they don’t want them.
When they experience all the “nots” in life, it is difficult to feel the world around them. Cyrus-Savary encourages ways to create more positivity by identifying their accomplishments and what they can do well. She replaces all they can’t do with all the things they can do, she said.
For example, when Cyrus-Savary visits a group home and someone says that the individual is bossy, she reframes it into a positive representation of what might be going on and says, “Oh, it sounds like Sharon has leadership skills.”
Or if someone complains that the individual is an attention seeker, Cyrus-Savary might say, “It sounds like Sharon is seeking a connection. Is there anyone she can spend some time with?”
Or if someone argues the person is manipulative, Cyrus-Savary might say, “It sounds like Sharon is a good advocate for what she needs.”
Flipping the switch can lead to positive well-being, what Cyrus-Savary describes as PERMA, an acronym for combining positive emotions with strong relationships and engagement along with accomplishments and meaning.
“What people look for is unconditional, positive responses from others to help get through,” she said. “This includes the families and caregivers who support individuals with l/DD, ASD, and mental health issues.”
To hear Sharon Cyrus-Savary’s full talk, listen on the NAMI Santa Clara YouTube channel