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In Times of Cataclysmic Change, Resilience Is Bouncing Back; Post-Traumatic Growth Is Bouncing Forward

In Times of Cataclysmic Change, Resilience Is Bouncing Back; Post-Traumatic Growth Is Bouncing Forward

Whatever the final, final results of the U.S. national elections this week, practices to strengthen resilience to meet the massive changes on the horizon are going to be helpful.

My friend Kathyrn sent me this article, Post-Traumatic Growth Might Be the Silver Lining of Trauma – Here’s How to Harness It by Cassie Shortsleeve in the October 18, 2020 issue of Elemental last week.

“In order to experience post-traumatic growth, the set of circumstances you face needs to seriously challenge your understanding of the world and your place in it”

The uncertainties and upheavals of 2020, with the continuing fears and losses from the world-wide coronavirus pandemic, the very real awakening to the inequities of racial-social-economic injustice, the imminent threats of catastrophic climate change, and the divisiveness in the fabric of American society, teetering in the 2020 election between democracy and fascism, certainly challenge us all in understanding our place in our rapidly shifting world.

The growth found by post-traumatic growth researchers is seen in five major realms: increased personal strengths, embracing new opportunities and possibilities, deeper relationships with people, both intimate and in community, deeper spiritual experience and a more values-driven life, and greater happiness in a newfound appreciation for life.

The article offers five major practices to reliably experience that growth:

Face your fears in small doses

Seek social support

Take your emotional temperature

Reframe your experience

And the article emphasized, growth in times that seriously challenge your understanding of the world and your place in it is a deliberate, intentional process, that requires conscious choices.

Catch the moment; make a choice. – Janet Friedman

Every moment has a choice; every choice has an impact. – Julia Butterfly Hill

I’ve added some of my own suggestions to the four practices outlined in the article….

Practice Facing Your Fears in Small Doses

“We’re biologically built to be a fearful species, but when you avoid your fears and push them down, it doesn’t help you learn to manage the fear,” says Deborah Marin, MD, director of the Center for Stress, Resilience, and Personal Growth at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Allowing yourself to feel your feelings in doses can help you experience the pain instead of avoiding it and choose the healthy coping strategies that lay the foundation for post-traumatic growth.  Meditation, mindful self-compassion, and writing in a journal are excellent practices for dosing the fear.

When you learn to recognize fears, sit with them, and effectively manage them, you also learn that you can be both resilient and anxious or resilient and fearful. From there, reminding yourself of the ways you’ve overcome challenges in the past can help you recognize personal strengths, ultimately fueling growth.

[I remember learning a very practical way to “dose the fear” from master Zen teacher Yvonne Rand.  “Make an appointment with the fear.  ‘I don’t have time right now, but I’ll meet you Friday at 2pm.’ Then you have to keep the appointment, but you have some sense of being able to manage the fear in the moment.”]

Seek Social Support

“Social support is predictive of coping, growing, thriving.  If you have strong social support, you’re more likely to experience growth from coping with a traumatizing event (or series of events). If you don’t have strong social support, you’re more likely to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Joan Cook, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine.

[From my own teaching about resilience and post-traumatic growth:

“1) First is finding other people to act as refuges and resources of safety and protection.  People who love us, care about us, believe in our resilience and recovery and growth. But who don’t need anything from us, don’t need us to be a certain way or move at a certain pace.  They allow us and support us in being with whatever we need to be aware of, be with, and accept.  Compassionate companions.

2) Then finding people as support, even resource.  Here I’m focusing on sharing your story and hearing other peoples’ stories.  Telling other people what has happened without having to explain or defend or justify anything can be very normalizing and regulating. The experience of common humanity can be very healing and create hope.

When sharing how you are coping and feeling received, understood, supported in other people listening, you get actual tangible support in moving from a victim stance to an empowered agentic stance.

Offering understanding, help and support to others can be even more powerful in recovering a sense of competence and mastery. We begin to see that we are coping; we begin to focus on the bigger picture, one of the hallmarks of resilience.”]

Social support is a recognized buffer for stress. “Individuals who are more connected to one another find themselves stronger after hardship,” says Dr. Marin. That’s our evolutionary neurobiology, and it works.

Take Your Emotional Temperature

Sneaking in enough (at least a few) feel-good activities throughout the day is easier said than done, but finding new ways to engage in pleasurable pursuits can help you create opportunities for growth, according to Dr. Cook. Start small by just making time for one thing you enjoy every day, even if it’s a cup of coffee or a morning run, and build from there.

[From my own teaching about resilience and post-traumatic growth:

“It may seem completely counter-intuitive at first to find positive moments in the midst of a catastrophe, and we certainly don’t do that to avoid being with and empathizing with the fear, the grief, the agony of the experience.  But 25 years of neuroscience research and 25 years of behavioral science research have demonstrated – beyond irrefutability –  the power of cultivating positive emotions to antidote the innate negativity bias of the brain and shift the functioning of the brain out of contraction, reactivity and rumination, into more receptivity, more openness to the big picture, more optimism, more learning and growth.  The direct measurable outcome of cultivating the positive is resilience.

We look for and notice and spend time with and savor moment of positive emotions, moments of kindness, compassion, gratitude, awe, joy, delight, positive experiences, not just to feel better but to function better.

Even moments of skillful distraction can be skillful in recovering from trauma and moving into post-traumatic growth – watching a good movie, cooking a good meal, playing a board game with the family. Finding moments of respite, in a warm cup of coffee, in the smile of a friend, in playing with a puppy, are essential to creating that shift in brain functioning that helps us recover from trauma.”]

Reframe your experience

Take time to think about what you went through to see if there have been any changes that you might view as positive growth.  For example, you could journal about the five different areas of growth – how you relate to others, new possibilities, personal strengths, spiritual change or a new found appreciation of life.  Note the ways you’ve been struggling, where you might be able to notice beauty and what opportunities you have to make change.  This type of work provides a chance for the reflective contemplation required for post-traumatic growth, notes Dr. Cook of Yale University.

[From my own teaching about resilience and post-traumatic growth:

Here’s the link to my brief video on Creating a Coherent Narrative, exactly the kind of reflective journaling this article suggests.  The journaling itself could take a good hour, or half a day, and moves you into the reflective perspective of what kind of growth and learning you have actually already experienced.]

Resilience is not about being untouched by adversity or unruffled by difficulties.  It’s about allowing stress to awaken in you these core human strengths of courage, connection, and growth.  People who are resilient allow themselves to be changed by the experience of adversity. To be resilient is not to avoid difficulty but to play an active role in how difficulty transforms you.

– Kelly McGonigal, PhD

The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It

You can get very, very good at meeting the upheavals of our times, with good choices, with practice.