Can Positive Psychology Help Deal With Childhood Trauma?

Positive Psychology is a relatively new school of thought that focuses on what makes life worthwhile. It deviates from many traditional forms of therapy — particularly ones that focus on the traumas of our past — by being more focused on well-being and resilience. 

However, it can be easily misunderstood, and its application varies, requiring a more nuanced understanding. This article dives into those and looks deeper into its uses and limitations.

positive psychology

What is Positivity Psychology?

Positive Psychology is a term that was first spoken by Martin Seligman, an American psychologist who cut his teeth at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s. Still alive today, Dr. Seligman is an advocate of simplifying psychology to make it easier to understand and more actionable in our lives.

The idea is centered around individuals’ well-being by focusing primarily on positive emotions, relationships, engagement, and accomplishments. It looks to improve our mental health by not simply addressing illness and tackling it head-on, but by nurturing the qualities that lead to a fulfilled life. This is, therefore, quite universal in nature.

Positive Psychology is extremely popular, especially in the US. This is in part because it’s so digestible for the self help industry. We can look to the PERMA model as the crux, despite Seligman announcing it quite late on in his career. The acronym stands for:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishments

Seligman claims each of these five fields have a big influence on our well-being. For example, the pursuit of goals, mastering tasks, and having a sense of accomplishment are crucial to our self-esteem and happiness.

therapy

Is it therapy or self-guided?

Positive Psychology can be accessed through a therapist or with self-guided practices. Both will look similar in approach: the person focuses on their own strengths, growing our gratitude, practicing mindfulness, setting meaningful goals, among a few other actionable processes. Gratitude journals are a common tool, particularly when self-guided, as well as performing acts of kindness and growing our mindset through various exercises.

How is this different from other treatments?

Positive Psychology focuses primarily on emphasizing our strengths and potential rather than tackling our deficits. It builds on humanistic psychology, which focuses on self-actualization and an inherent desire for growth. Where Positive Psychology sets itself apart is its empirical approach, which has a lot of scientific backing.

Positive Psychology is unlike Stoicism, for example, which is less keen to throw ourselves into the good times, but rather prepare for when the tough times come. 

It also differs from conventional psychotherapy therapy by shifting from ‘what’s wrong to what’s strong’. 

therapy

When is it beneficial? 

Because of its humanistic and universalist approach, Positive Psychology is thought to be useful in most of our lives, whether we’re suffering from mental health conditions or not. However, this isn’t to say it doesn’t have areas that it excels in, and areas of limitation.

The application of Positive Psychology in childhood trauma

It may almost sound flippant to suggest Positive Psychology for such heavy, grave matters of our past. However, that is the very point, to make them less heavy and grave, and to explore them through positive perception and compassion.

In a powerful study by James Stevenson, there were 8 factors that changed the impact of childhood trauma on outcomes. These were:

  • Self-compassion
  • Optimism
  • Positive perception
  • Meaning in life
  • Positive emotions
  • Mindset
  • Subjective well-being
  • Psychological suzhi

Self-compassion is one that arose to be particularly important as a mediator. The study concludes that these methods have transformative potential in recovery strategies. While the study doesn’t comment on such, it’s possible that many people suffering from trauma may have it become core to their identity or how they see themselves, potentially as a victim, as opposed to a person who is capable of the highest dreams and ambitions. 

It helps us forgive ourselves and others too, which is particularly important for those who suffered from narcissistic abuse, and leave behind our past for a brighter future. However, that isn’t to say a universal approach isn’t limited, as explored below.

resilience

Why is it so useful for anxiety and depression?

Positive Psychology, as described in its name, is a recipe towards leading a more positive and fulfilled life. With a laser focus on well-being, it is a suitable prescription for those suffering from anxiety, feelings of low self-esteem, and depression. By bringing the focus towards our positive experiences, it can grow feelings of gratitude, which is proven to help alleviate depression.

Positive emotions are often something that is lacking in such patients, so the act of practicing compassion for one’s self, along with gratitude and writing down goals, helps us stay on track and build towards a better future. Becoming more aware of the present moment through mindfulness is a hugely important part of the puzzle too, as this helps us step back from identifying with our more pervasive, negative thoughts, and not get stuck in such negative loops of thought.

When is Positive Psychology not the right option?

Positive Psychology can come in the form of self-help. Seligman himself has published such books, and these are certainly limited in their effect. While it may be life-changing for some, it will be just another self-help book for others. However, when accessed through a therapist, results are going to be even more reliable.

Positive Psychology is not a targeted tool. While powerful, it is universal, and so if a person’s problems are extremely specific, this may not be the most targeted approach. It may work, and there’s little evidence that it can do much harm (especially compared to other forms of therapy which have more room for being controversial or volatile). In this sense, it may improve somebody’s life who has complex PTSD, but it may not be the last treatment they seek out for such a problem. It’s also not a replacement for clinical conditions that require medication, such as psychiatric help.

Conclusion

Positive Psychology is a powerful approach in so far as it’s incredibly universal and with the potential to be self-guided. While not necessarily designed to deal with psychiatric problems, putting well-being first, and in the methodical and actionable way that Seligman lays out, has provable and positive outcomes on the lives of many, even for those with trauma, depression, and anxiety.

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