Ever heard of Post Traumatic Growth? If the answer is no, you are not alone. It is an area of research that focuses on the positive mental changes that can follow the experience of traumatic events. And while the research has been going on for decades the focus is usually on the other side of trauma - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The trauma being studied is varied and includes abuse, severe injuries, military members who have survived the atrocities of war, as well as life’s most common traumas such as the loss of employment or a loved one. There are two questions being asked by a number of researchers. The first is why some people get through a traumatic event feeling as though it was a growth experience and others don’t? The second is, can it be learned?
Martin Seligman, Ph.D., psychologist, educator and author, is the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He named this quality, the ability to bounce back, resilience and looked for a key to predict resilience in individuals. After thirty years of research he believes the key to resilience is optimism. Those people who are quick to recover have “a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable.” In other words, they believe that the situation will go away quickly, that it’s not actually about them or that they can do something about it. This way of thinking comes naturally to them.
Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum tells her story of being held prisoner of war in the book She Went to War. In it she describes knowing that while she was badly injured she also knew the wounds would heal. Then she vowed to survive when she realized that her Iraqi captors were not going to kill her. When asked by Jim Rendon, NY Times writer, about the inability of most people to find luck in her situation she said, “It’s the only way I would think. I’ve been practicing that my whole life. If you don’t do that, why would you ever proceed with anything?” I am also reminded of Nelson Mandela and the positive impact his imprisonment had on the world, and South Africa in particular. Despite 27 years in prison when freedom came his desire for his country was reconciliation and democracy and he fought poverty and inequality.
That leads to the second question. If optimism is not a natural way of thinking, can it be learned? Dr. Seligman and his team said yes and created the Penn Resiliency Project for young adults and children. It has been very successful and is now replicated, and modified, for use in other settings.
Where would be the best place to start helping someone grow from hardship ? Based on Dr. Seligman’s research it starts with choosing to live with a positive attitude, and even more importantly, believing one can influence the direction of ones life. It is the unwavering belief that while one will encounter problems in life, they can be solved. Walls may have surrounded Nelson Mandela physically but his mind was never imprisoned.
It will take practice to form a habit of thinking from the perspective of they can be solved. It means starting with what is in front of you now. What issue are you facing in your life that feels unsolvable? Are you willing to take another look? Are you willing to open yourself to another possibility? It might open a whole new path for you. The more ingrained this habit becomes, the more you use a mantra of, “I easily find the solutions I need now,” then the greater your growth from any adversity you encounter in life.
Another exercise is to develop a practice each evening of looking back on your day to consciously remember the good that happened to you that day. Done regularly it will enhance not only your overall optimism, it will also increase your energy and feelings of connection with the world and people around you.