New Resilience Even from Losses Resolved Long Ago
I received the most encouraging testimonial about the Creating a Coherent Narrative exercise (see below) from someone in the U.K. who heard it on the Sounds True Brain Change summit last week:
“I took a pause from taking notes at the slide ‘Coherent Narrative’ and started using the post-traumatic growth exercise on the death of my wife 15 years ago, an event I thought I was well and truly over. What a difference it made! I could literally feel new energy rising up through my body.
(Do I owe you a session fee? :)”
I will be teaching the exercise Creating a Coherent Narrative at these upcoming trainings, east coast and west coast.
May 19-24 Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Stockbridge, MA
June 1, 2019 Insight LA, Santa Monica, CA
June 13-14 Leading Edge Seminars, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Links to videos: Practice What You Preach
June 17-21 Cape Cod Institute, Cape Cod, MA
You can try the exercise yourself below; you can download it as an audio recording here.
Researchers have found that journaling can be a powerful tool in coming to terms with a traumatizing event — the death of a child, the loss of your home in a flood or fire – because the brain processes an event differently when you’re writing about it than when you’re thinking or talking about it.
Writing puts you in more of an observer’s role, holding the event in a larger awareness. You can begin to see that what happened is part of your story, but not the whole story. There was a time before, then something happened, and there is an after, even if your life after the event is very different from what it was before. What happened is still included in your larger life story — not forgotten or denied or glossed over as though it never happened — but it does not determine the entire story. Whatever happened has its place in your life, but it doesn’t have to determine the rest of your life.
Exercise: Creating a Coherent Narrative
Allow at least thirty minutes to do this written reflection, even if you are working with a small, manageable event. Taking the time to reflect creates space in your brain’s processing to generate insights you might not have expected.
1. Identify a single event you want to practice with. Choose an event that you did manage to cope with, one that you processed successfully and learned from. You want to stay in your range of resilience in this exercise and not risk being retriggered or retraumatized. (With practice, however, this tool can help you process anything that has ever happened.)
2. Write your reflections for each of these prompts, and take as much time as you need.
* Describe what happened; describe the consequences. Use your tools of mindfulness and self-compassion to come to the awareness and acceptance of a compassionate observer’s perspective. Try to relate to the event somewhat objectively.
* Describe the resources, practices, tools and coping strategies you used at the time. Recall these clearly, with honesty and pride, no shame or blame. It’s important to recover the strengths and resources you already had at the time.
* Describe the resources and responses you would use now if you could do this over. You have probably grown and learned since the event occurred. This step integrates that learning.
* Describe the lessons you learned, the growth you experienced, the positive meanings you found. Take all the time you need; this step is the turning point of the exercise.
* List the things you now appreciate because of the event. Resilience involves more than coping. It’s finding the new lessons, the new possibilities, the new opportunities, the new sense of meaning and purpose and life direction because of the event, not just in spite of it.
3. When you have finished this written reflection, set it aside for two or three days. When you reread it, notice whether you’ve had any additional insights to add to what you have already written.
4. Reread this reflection again a month or a year later, and notice how your relationship to the event has continued to shift.
5. Create a coherent narrative for as many challenging events in your life as you wish. Eventually your brain will learn to generalize this process: you can reframe events more quickly and more easily.
This exercise helps you let go of any stories about yourself that are not helpful to you now and to reflect on and claim any resilience you have already developed. It can also help you trust that you will be resilient in the face of whatever might happen in the future.