My friend Rose was once married to the perfect man. He was loving, intelligent, patient and in every way her ideal partner. They were living in a country town with their two little girls and were planning a trip overseas. Yet Rose was plagued by continuous nightmares in which they all died. Since her husband had a position of responsibility, he often worked until midnight. Rose would stay up and wait for him, disconcerted by her dreams. Finally she talked to him. He suggested that they travel to the USA separately, each taking one child, so it would not be possible for them to all be killed. Before this, however, the two of them were to travel to Perth, because he had realised that he enjoyed explaining things and wanted to become a high school teacher, for which he needed to get the paperwork underway. They brought the girls to their good friend’s house the evening before the trip. In the early morning, standing by the window dressed and ready, he asked Rose: “Do you think we should go?” She replied that, well, everything was organised. So they went. Even though he lacked experience and Rose was a much better driver, he insisted on taking the wheel. Rose didn’t argue, relaxed in her seat and fell asleep. At one point she woke up to see the just-risen sun over a paddock of Eucalypt trees. “Look at this,” she exclaimed, “it is like the dawn of life – like the world has just been created!” Soon Rose went back to sleep. Her next memory was of waking up in the hospital. They had veered off the road and her husband had been killed in the crash.
I will tell you a secret. I think I have worked out why we don’t know our future. I think it is because we naturally focus on the negative. If we were shown the whole landscape of our lives, we would not rejoice at the peaceful times, the love and progress we see. No, we might spot a traumatic event, a loss, years of hardship, and would quickly lose hope. Ozer and Weiss found that nearly half of USA citizens will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives.1 That means many of us.
Today I want to introduce you to Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, frontline research scientist and distinguished contributor to positive psychology. Lyubomirsky argues that the research on post-traumatic growth offers encouraging news to anyone living through personal crisis or hardship. According to Lyubomirsky, there are three potential outcomes resulting from such a challenge: one can survive, one can fully recover or one can thrive. Those who just survive end up having lower levels of psychological wellbeing than before the crisis; those who recover may suffer for a period of time but then return to their previous level of wellbeing; and those who flourish, well, they never look back! They come out of it transformed.2
How did Rose fare after her devastating blow? She ended up making a life for herself and her girls. After a disorientating grieving period she became a teacher, formed a strong circle of friends, and many years later met another partner. Her harrowing experience made her remarkably independent, socially aware and strong. Martin Seligman points out that Nietzsche’s comment ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’ has merits. Seligman and colleagues asked individuals to report in a questionnaire whether one of the 15 worst life experiences had happened to them. This included torture, rape, imprisonment, death of a child, or severe illness. 1700 people took the survey as well as a wellbeing test. Seligman reports:
Individuals who’d experienced one awful event had more intense strengths (and therefore higher well-being) than individuals who had none. Individuals who’d been through two awful events were stronger than individuals who had one, and individuals who had three – raped, tortured, and held captive for example – were stronger than those who had two.3
Every time life throws us a severe challenge, it throws with it the possibility of post-traumatic growth. In times of despair this can be cold comfort, and nobody endures troubles thinking “wow – look at me growing stronger and wiser here”. In hindsight, however, many people who have experienced trauma and hardship acknowledge that it did make them stronger. I want to tell you how you can be in the groups that recover or go on to flourish. There are two strategies that can help you pull it off. One I introduced last week: it includes finding positive meaning through expressive writing. The other is social support.
Pennebaker found that people who were asked to write or talk about upsetting episodes in their lives gained significant physical benefits from doing so.4 Typically, Pennebaker would ask his research participants to write down their very deepest thoughts and feelings about very important emotional issues that had affected them, for 15 to 30 minutes on three to five consecutive days. Pennebaker found that people embraced this opportunity to disclose deeply personal experiences, with the overwhelming majority of participants considering the writing exercise meaningful and valuable. Compared with the control groups who wrote about superficial topics, the therapeutic writing lead to less doctor visits, stronger physical immunity, long term mood improvements, significant stress reduction, better grades for students, and less alcohol consumption as well as sooner re-employment among laid off professionals.5 According to Pennebaker and Seagal, therapeutic writing allows individuals to organise and express complex emotional issues by forming a clear storyline about their experiences. This development of one’s story is an indicator of good mental and physical health.6
Another way to do this is to talk to people who care, listen well and are sympathetic. I am, of course, talking about family or friends. Not everyone, however, has such amazing social support. Also, sometimes our family and friends can be overwhelmed with our pain or troubles. In this case a counsellor is invaluable, as they are paid to hear us out. (There are free counselling services; ask your GP for help.) Whether you tell or write your story, doing so will help you heal.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015