Bouncing Back, Bouncing Forward, Bouncing Around
For me, it was just simply being rear-ended while driving through town, no real damage to either car, no apparent damage to me nor the very apologetic and gracious driver who hit me. But a few days later when a headache began that wouldn’t quit, my doctor diagnosed a concussion or “brain bruise” and ordered complete bed-rest until the headache went away. (See Stories To Learn From below.)
I do write and teach about resilience a lot; I’ve posted newsletters here before about post-traumatic growth (see Resources below). That simple brain bruise opened the door to a lot more inquiry into concussions (there is so much information available now because of the interest in traumatic brain injury among young and professional athletes – my brain was bouncing not just back or forward but around in my skull) and deepened my interest in post-traumatic growth. What researchers are discovering about practices and skills that help people recover from traumatizing events, not always bouncing but very often finding new meaning and purpose, shifting priorities and strengthening connections with others because of what they’ve experienced, what that experience opened them up to.
The reflections below offer steps for resilience and recovery for anyone’s experience of coping with “things changed in an instant.” Compiled from the latest research into recovering from, and finding new strengths because of, difficult or even disastrous events. May they be useful to you and yours.
Steps of Post-Traumatic Growth
1. Acceptance of reality. This happened. This really happened. Never should have. Not fair. Accepting that the consequences can be devastating and the process of recovering/rebuilding could go on for years. Accepting the event and the recovery as the new reality. “Acceptance coping” identified as significant predictor of post-traumatic growth.
* Mindfulness – non-judgmental acceptance of what is – can be very helpful here.
Between a stimulus and a response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.
– Viktor Frankl
2. Support from family/friends/community who believe in your recovery and healing.
In addition to the physical support of a safe haven and chicken soup, trauma survivors need to have people around them, near them, who believe the person experiencing the trauma can fully recover. No conflict or confusion, no ambivalence or argument about that. Not a quick gloss-over of “You’ll be fine!” But empathy for the fear and also the perspective of the long view – you will be fine someday – that the person may not be able to access at first.
* Therapy can be very important in providing this support and in helping the survivor accept it from others.
Throughout out life, our close relationships with caregivers, friends, romantic partners, and others build and sustain our resilience, The central significance of close relationships for resilience has been noted in virtually every review on resilience in development over the past half-century. I cannot think of one person who did it by themselves. A lot of what makes the difference for people is the support they are receiving.
– Ann Masten, Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development, 2014
The moment we cease to hold one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
– James Baldwin
3. Finding a community of other people with the same trauma; people who have been there and who know. Camaraderie and common humanity without having to explain; helps us want to stay on the planet; we can stop feeling sorry for self and engage with, even help, others in the same struggle.
* Group therapy can be very helpful here.
Ah, the comfort,
The inexpressible comfort
Of feeling safe with a person.
Having neither to weigh out thoughts
But pouring them all right out, just as they are,
Chaff and grain together;
Certain that a faithful hand
Will take them and sift them;
Keeping what is worth keeping and,
With the breath of kindness,
Blow the rest away.
– Dinah Craik, A Life for a Life, 1859
4. Finding positive moments even in the midst of a catastrophe. A smile, a good meal, a stroll in the park, a moment of laughter provide a respite from unbearable fear or grief. Not a bypass. Skillful distraction, deep gratitude, essential resources.
* Taking in the good can be very helpful here.
People with a positive attitude have lots of advantages over others in these situations. They have broad and deep support networks. They are more integrated into their communities. They live longer and have more fulfilling lives. It’s an advantage for everything.
– Sharon Manne, Rutgers Cancer Institute
With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.
– Abraham Lincoln
5. Allow yourself to struggle. Struggle is part of the process and it can be liberating to discover that.
* Self-compassion can be very helpful here.
How long should you try? Until.
– Jim Rohn
6. Be flexible. Flexibility can hardly be overrated as a crucial asset when we face difficulties. It’s the brain’s executive center of functioning (pre-frontal cortex) that can perceive options and make decisions, plans, choices.
* Open-ended brainstorming, without evaluation or judgement, can be very helpful here.
How you respond to the issue…is the issue.
– Frankie Perez
7. Pro-actively re-enter the world. Open to new experiences and learning. The brain learns from experience; rewires from new experience. Volunteering, exercise-sports, creative arts. Very important step in discovering meaning and purpose.
* Encouragement and engagement with others can be very helpful here.
In every community, there is work to be done.
In every nation, there are wounds to heal.
In every heart, there is the power to do it.
– Marianne Williamson
8. Positive re-framing; find positive meaning in a negative event. Recovering the capacity to “turn a regrettable moment into a teachable moment” is a tremendous turning point in recovery from trauma; finding the hidden gift, the silver lining. How does this fit into my life story? This includes forgiving one’s self for any part of the trauma.
* Journaling or writing a new narrative of one’s life, placing the trauma into a timeline of other periods of change and transition, can be very helpful here.
All the world is full of suffering; it is also full of overcoming.
– Helen Keller
9. Communicating about the trauma. Talking with others, coming out of isolation or feeling like the only one. Recognizing, getting support of common humanity.
* Sharing the story with a larger audience, beyond family and friends, can be very helpful here.
At times our own light goes out and is re-kindled by the spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
– Albert Schweitzer
10. Helping others to integrate and pass along what you’ve learned, to deepen a sense of compassion and to recover a sense of competence, empowerment, mastery.
* Volunteering, speaking, writing, teaching can be very helpful here.
Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.
– Martin Seligman
11. Value the process, not the outcome. It’s not the event that produces the growth, though the event may catalyze that growth. It’s the process of healing that creates the growth.
* All of the above can be very helpful here.
When misfortune fills the world and its inhabitants, make adversity the path of awakening.
– Tibetan teaching
12. Appreciating that the new life came because of the catastrophe, not just in spite of it. Not just course correction but an entirely new direction.
This is a leap of intuitive wisdom and integration of a larger perspective.
* Mindful reflection and insight can be very helpful here.
What stands in the way becomes the way
– Marcus Aurelius
No one chooses to have a catastrophe befall them or anyone they love; no one wants to have to cope with life’s unwanted, disruptive changes over and over and over. And yet… disappointments, difficulties, even disasters are always part of every human life. These reflections are offered in the hope that you will find the hope and courage you need whenever you face a crisis that threatens to potentially shatter your view of the world and yourself.
Mastering the art of resilience does much more than restore you to who you once thought you were. Rather, you emerge from the experience transformed into a true expression of who you were really meant to be.
– Carol Orsborn
May it be so.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
“Trauma is a fact of life. It doesn’t have to be a life sentence.”
– Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing Trauma therapy
* * * * *
Post-traumatic stress is a catalyst for emotional growth. The worse has happened, and we are changed. Let’s face it. Few of us live our best and kindest lives. Most of us hurtle along, propelled by bills and responsibilities, somewhat impervious to our true potential. A breakdown also breaks down the musts and should-haves that ruled our daily routines, along with life as we knew it. Temporarily suspended in a vacuum, we can recalibrate, and maybe for the first time, tune into what truly matters.
– Michaela Haas, Bouncing Forward
* * * * *
“It’s the process of re-building and re-discovering who you are in a world where “bad things happen to good people” that fosters new meaning, new purpose, new direction for people. Not just bouncing back but moving into a new sense of fulfillment and thriving. That’s the growth.
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 Tedecshi, professor of psychology at University of North Carolina-Charlotte, pioneer in research in post-traumatic growth
* * * * *
We define trauma not so much by the event itself but by the emotional and psychological effect an event has on people. We look especially at any event that challenge people’s core belief system: people start to question how the world works, what kind of person they are, what kind of life they are living, and what future they have. So it’s not necessarily something that wounds people physically, or where death is an issue. Certainly all these things can be traumatic, but we’re looking at the effect on the individual in terms of what happens to their thinking processes and their beliefs.
– Richard Tedeschi
* * * * *
Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it.
What appears bad manners,
An ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things
No ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
Down there where the spirit meets the bone.
– Miller Williams
* * * * *
Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amidst the storm.
– author unknown
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
As I used these 12 steps myself to cope with the aftermath of my concussion, I learned so much. I had to open my mind to new perspectives simply to accommodate the learning from what I was experiencing. Recovering from the physical impact of the concussion on my brain continues, and the growth from these steps profoundly supports that.
1. Acceptance of reality. I quickly learned I had shifting realities to cope with, and more than once. It did help to know that the accident wasn’t my fault; I was driving along a busy street in my home town, traffic ahead of me slowed, I slowed, the car behind me didn’t. What!!! But my choices of response were key, and I quickly learned that there were many of those: surrender to reality, defiance of reality, receiving support from others who had a larger perspective on reality than I did. My mindfulness practice showed up immediately; my acceptance coping took a bit longer. But noticing my responses and pulling them together into a more integrated equanimity and long view was key to my recovery, and coping while I recovered.
2. Support from family/friends/community who believe in your recovery and healing.
The chicken soup showed up immediately. The balanced acceptance of reality and belief in my recovery did, too. “Bad things happen to good people.” Difficult challenges happen to everybody. By slowing down and receiving the support that was so generously offered, the light did not go out. I could slow down for the deeper work of exploring what recovery and healing would look like, and how my life might change in the future without freaking out about that.
3. Finding a community of other people with the same trauma.
I could hardly walk down the street talking to neighbors without meeting other people who had suffered concussions. An invisible injury; who knew? And the comfort of having to neither weigh out thoughts nor words made it a lot easier to navigate the flow of thoughts rushing through my mind in the first days and weeks after the diagnosis. Accessing so much valuable information online was also a great resource. And a lead story of that month’s issue of Scientific American Mind: Surprising Truths about Concussions provided a lot of emerging data and a lot of reassurance.
4. Finding positive moments in the midst of a catastrophe.
Awe and gratitude have been foundational practices for me for a long time. The budding of a flower or meeting a playful puppy on a walk or receiving a link to an inspiring YouTube video – “these are a few of my favorite thing.” Taking in the good has been a deepening practice of mine for quite a while. To simply stop, notice, appreciate, appreciate that I stopped to appreciate. Laughter quickly become a most welcome newer practice. To delight in something, share that delight with a friend, and then laugh spontaneously over the shared connection provided a welcome respite from any anxiety and worry.
5. Allow yourself to struggle.
I noticed how much harder it was than usual to ride the waves of fear, trust, annoyance, relief, hope, lack of interest. Not only had my brain bounced around in my skull; my thoughts and feelings were bouncing around more than usual, too. I do appreciate the marvelous capacities of the default network of our brains to meander and play and pull random thoughts together in a new way, but I watched eagerly for signs that I could focus on a project for more than ten minutes at a time once again. And my self-compassion phrases of “may I be kind to myself in this moment; may I accept this moment exactly as it is; may I accept myself exactly as I am in this moment” evolved to add “in any moment; in every moment.”
6. Be flexible.
I have taken so much pride in recent years in moving out of a stiff rigidity in expecting things to go a certain way to more flexibility in going with the flow. So my capacities for flexibility showed up as pre-resourcing, my new favorite practice. To develop capacities ahead of time so that when something super-duper challenging happens, the circuits I need in my brain are already grooved in and ready to go.
7. Pro-actively re-enter the world.
The standard medical treatment for concussion of complete bed rest until the headache goes away was difficult, dare I say impossible, for me to comply with. But I did rejoice when the joy of engaging with the world returned. I had slowed down. I had had moments of difficulty coping at the same time with the concussion and a sewer replacement project on my block and a house project that required me packing up everything, moving it into storage, then moving it back in and unpacking it all two weeks later. My re-entry into my professional world took time and careful attention. But every moment, every day, of re-engaging with a larger circle of people and activities was a sign that I could, and that was a huge part of a deepening faith in my recovery.
8. Positive re-framing; find positive meaning in a negative event.
Some of the teachable moments and gifts of the silver lining happened immediately. An immediate opening of my heart to compassion for the vulnerability of the human condition. We all have something we’re coping with. Many folks have many things they are coping with. To feel common humanity at a cellular level was a great gift of the concussion. And I feel great gratitude that that opening to being simply one among many continues to this day.
Harder lessons: slowly comprehending that my brain might have been vulnerable to concussion not just from the immediate moment of the accident but from years of wear and tear on my brain – years of stress or not enough exercise or the inexorable process of aging. I submitted my manuscript of Bouncing Back for publication the same week I became eligible to apply for Medicare. That was an iconic moment of “where did all the time go?” Coming to understand the impacts of aging on the human brain helped my open up my mind to the reality that I was aging. I had often thanked the stamina and energy of my peasant-farmer ancestry for being able to live heartily as though I was 20 years younger. But my brain was becoming older, more rapidly than perhaps I had been willing to look at.
Any injury, however slight, however serious, raises the existential issues of mortality, and my ongoing recovery from my concussion, has to include that. I was galvanized to create end-of-life documents, which of course should have been done years ago. Had to be done now to take seriously the responsibility to not leave a mess for family and friends should anything more serious happen at any time at all. And that process evokes both a life review and a life projection. So that the bigger questions of choices going forward are on the table. How do I want to shape my efforts in the time I get to remain on the planet – 20 days or 20 years. Stepping back, looking at the long view, practicing with the Heavenly Messengers of the Buddhist tradition – illness, old age, and death – has been perhaps the greatest gift, and one that I could not have foreseen before the accident.
9. Communicating about the trauma
Many of my friends are in the same decade of life I am. And the conversations about the “brain bruise” and the choices about the recovery and the choices about going forward into new plans, new priorities, new uncertainties, has been most enlightening and meaningful. And the building of a sense of community has been precious beyond belief. Writing this newsletter has given me the opportunity to cohere my thoughts and integrate the lessons that have been accumulating in this process. Hearing other people’s stories of their post-traumatic growth has been a treasure and a resource for further learning.
Out of the closet, into the world, a rewarding path.
10. Helping others.
I’ve been passionate about learning about resilience and well-being for a long time, and privileged to teach about resilience and well-being to an increasingly broader audience, which increases my well-being immensely. My own version of:
A hundred times every day, I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other people, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.
– Albert Einstein
May that continue.
11. Value the process, not the outcome
It’s the process of healing that creates the growth. I have also taught and tried to live for a long time my version of the Tibetan teaching “make adversity the path of awakening.” In my book Bouncing Back I offer an exercise in Chapter 16 on Recognizing Opportunities to Shift Old Patterns and Create Options. Even when I’m drinking from a firehose of opportunities, there’s still the sense of valuing the process and feeling deep gratitude that I’m still here to have a process at all.
12. Appreciating that the new life came because of the catastrophe, not just in spite of it.
I know true well that the deeper cracking open of my heart to common humanity came instantly and precisely because of the events surrounding the concussion. And I know the recognition of the need to take a longer view of the unfolding of my life, years ahead of living from a perspective larger than responding to the latest emails, came because of the events surrounding the concussion, not in spite of it. Would I wish such a “brain bruise” on myself again or anyone I know and care about, anyone at all? No, of course not. But do I appreciate the learning and growth offered – required! – because of the event and the healing from it? You betcha. Indeed, that is a part of the healing and growth.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
The reflections above suggest many practices that can be useful for each step of this trajectory of post-traumatic growth: mindfulness, therapy, group therapy, self-compassion, brainstorming, volunteering, exercise, creative arts, journaling, teaching. All with the intent of helping someone come to terms with the “new normal,” recover their centeredness and groundedness, and move authentically into a new life.
A useful exercise is to use this entire trajectory as an inquiry into how well and how completely you have processed and come to terms with any event that upheavaled your life once upon a time, and yet led to new learnings, new opportunities, new growth that would not have happened otherwise.
1. Take a moment of quiet inner reflection to identify a struggle in your own life that was very difficult, even disruptive at the time, or an event that was truly challenging or even catastrophic at the time, as long as you feel resolved now about the issue or event. As long as you feel you have recovered from the impact of the event, whatever steps you took to do that.
2. Write down the event that you’re choosing to work with for this exercise and write down what you remember of your reactions and responses to the event, even as those evolved over time.
3. Reflect on any sense of self, identity, belief systems, rules about how the world works that were challenged by this event; what was upheavaled.
4. Reflect on any of the steps in the post-traumatic growth trajectory outlined in the reflections above that you might have used in your own recovery. How were they helpful?
5. Reflect on any steps of the PTG trajectory that you did not use, but you think now might have been helpful at the time.
6. Identify any learning, hidden gift, silver lining from the recovery of this event. Is there any learning you would not have learned it this event hadn’t happened?
7. Reflect on any new sense of self, identity, belief systems, rules about how the world work that might have emerged from your post traumatic growth process. How is your life different – perhaps even better – now because of this event?
8. See if you can place the learning of this event into this framework:
This is what happened.
This was the cost (or consequence).
This is the learning or change in my life catalyzed by this event and/or by recovering from this event.
This is how I can carry this learning forward in my life, i.e., what further changes might be catalyzed in my life because of this learning.
9. Take a moment to reflect on your process in this exercise. Notice any shifts in perspective. Was there any new learning or insight from doing this process?
10. Take a moment to acknowledge your own skills in recovering from an upset in your life; own your own capacities to bounce back.
Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth by Jim Rendon.
Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs by Michaela Haas, PhD. New York: Enliven Books, 2015
Post-Traumatic Growth: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis by Richard Tedeschi and Crystal Park. Routledge, 2014