Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth

I’m posting a 5-week series on post-traumatic growth here in March 2017, part of my own learning for the new book, exploring how many people can move through and beyond coping with difficulties and even disasters to new wisdom, purpose, and thriving.

Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs by my friend and colleague Michaela Haas, captures some of what I will be exploring, (see September 2015 e-newsletter on Bouncing Forward) that people can not only survive a catastrophe, and not only cope resiliently; they can use the lessons from recovering from the trauma to become wiser, more resilient, more compassionate human beings.

Michaela told me earlier this week that the German translation of her book title is Strong Like a Phoenix, and that the Tibetan new year, which began February 27, 2017, is the year of the firebird, like a phoenix, the mythical bird that is destroyed by fire, then is reborn from the ashes more powerful than ever, much the experience that many people have in post-traumatic growth.

We begin this series exploring the first of five factors necessary for post-traumatic growth: Awareness and acceptance of reality.

Be willing to have it so.  Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.

– William James, founder of American psychology

When a person or someone they care about loses a job, or loses their health, or loses someone they love in a car accident or natural disaster, it’s natural to protect themselves from the overwhelm and disorientation of such a life-upheavaling event by going into protest, resistance, disbelief.

This never should have happened.  Not fair.  A catastrophic event can shatter our sense of what the rules are, how the world is supposed to work. 

Part of recovering from a tragic or traumatizing event is to come to terms with the reality of the human condition: “bad things happen to good people.”  That we cannot do enough or be good enough to protect ourselves nor our loved ones from the possibility, even the likelihood, of tragedy, trouble, even trauma. 

Researchers have found that it can be particularly difficult for Americans to not only have their lives blown apart by the truly awful, but to have their world view of how the world is supposed to work blown apart – if you work hard enough and follow the rules and take care to take care, you should be able to avoid or prevent bad things happening to you or your loved ones, and that’s not what’s true.

What researchers are finding is true, without ever minimizing the devastating impact of any traumatic event, is that facing and accepting that “normal is never going to be what normal used to be” is a significant predictor of someone being able to move through a disaster into a genuine experience of post-traumatic growth, which they describe as:

– an increased sense of personal strengths

– a sense of new opportunities, new possibilities

– deeper relationships with family, friends, and community

– a deeper sense of meaning and purpose

– a greater appreciation for the gifts of life

Because there is no returning to baseline for people whose worlds have been upended by trauma, a traumatic event is not simply a hardship to be overcome.  The trauma becomes a dividing line in people’s lives.  It can catalyze deep transformation.  People do more than survive; they become wise.

– Richard Tedeschi, University of North Carolina-Charlotte

Pioneering researcher in post-traumatic growth

I don’t know of any practice from any paradigm more powerful to help people be aware of and accept reality as it is than Mindful Self-Compassion, the protocol developed by Kristin Neff at University of Texas-Austin and Christopher Germer at Harvard.

Mindfulness focuses awareness on the experience of any moment, accepting whatever is happening exactly as it is happening in that moment.  That courageous awareness and acceptance is key to being able to change or respond skillfully to whatever is happening in the moment.

Self-Compassion focuses on bringing kindness and acceptance toward ourselves as the experiencer of the moment, however painful or difficult that moment might be; that we deserve safety, comfort, protection, resourcing to help us deal with whatever is happening

Common Humanity, the sense that “I am not alone; I am not the only one,” is also an important aspect of finding the resources to overcome any difficulty or adversity.

And the practice worth its weight in gold to begin to cultivate this mindful self-compassion, to hold any difficult reality in awareness and acceptance without running away from it or denying the enormity of it, is the practice of taking regular self-compassion breaks

Self-Compassion Break

As you go through your regular day, several times a day, slow down, take a moment to pause whatever you’re doing and check in with yourself, noticing how you’re doing, noticing whether there’s any distress that you’ve been pushing through or pushing away, notice the experience of the moment and your feelings about the experience of the moment, your feelings about yourself in that moment, and if there’s even a hint of upset, about anything, repeat a few rounds of these phrases:

May I be kind to myself in this moment.

May I accept this moment, exactly as it is.

May I accept myself in this moment, exactly as I am.

May I give myself all the compassion and courageous action I need.

I have further modified these phrases in my own practice, so now I will take the time to say:

May I be kind to myself in this moment; may I be kind to myself in any moment; may I be kind to myself in every moment.

May I accept this moment, exactly as it is.  May I accept any moment exactly as it is.  May I accept every moment exactly as it is. 

Etc.

It’s not that repeating these phrases alone will resolve the situation or problem that is overwhelming us, but these phrases do help shift the functioning of our brain into a more open receptive state where we can begin to figure out how to deal with whatever seems impossible to face.  The trauma begins to lose its power to block our coping; we begin to move through the trauma, coming out of the trauma with new perspective, new wisdom, new hope for a new life.