Friday, August 19, 2016

Healing from Life's Traumas

Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D.
Whether caused by coups or wars, floods or tornados, famines or disease, fires or vehicular accidents, or the more common, but still hurtful, separations, divorces, deaths in the family—traumas cause physical and psychological injuries that need healing. There is encouraging evidence that we often become stronger after such healing is completed. That is fortunate, because a world-wide study has shown that more than 40% of men and of women have suffered trauma at the hands of other people.
You’ve probably heard the same adages I have: “the blow that doesn’t crush you strengthens you,” “every knock is a boost,” “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” You may have thought you could do without quite so much good fortune, those helpful blows and boosting knocks, and that you’d get going…elsewhere.
The School of Hard Knocks
Many successful people have attributed success to lessons learned in the school of hard knocks, temporary blows that provided permanent benefits. Harlan Sanders worked from age 40 to age 62 before his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise operation became an overnight success. World-class athletes and their weekend work-out cousins confirm: no pain, no gain. Some companies emerge stronger from bankruptcy, though others collapse. Why?

Healing Stronger
When we break a bone, the break heals to become stronger than the surrounding bone. Skin scar tissue is often tougher than the original. Even personal slights that produce hurt feelings can toughen us up. Adria Goldman Gross, my friend and co-author [Solved! Curing Your Medical Insurance Problems] came back from a life-threatening brain operation for her debilitating and embarassing epileptic fits to establish a successful patients’ advocacy practice.

Toxicologists say “the dose makes the poison.” Small doses of caffeine are invigorating; large doses can kill. Responses to alcohol depend on the dose and on one’s constitution. You can over-dose on vitamins. The technical term is “hormesis,” found widely, including exposure to radiation. Even sunlight, beneficial in moderation, can be overdone. Individual sensitivities vary.
What about life’s other major, non-fatal stresses?
Recent research demonstrates post-traumatic toughening, the beneficent sibling of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here, again, the nature and degree of injury (and the constitution of the injured) greatly influence the outcome.
In researching this topic, I found Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link between Suffering and Success, by David B. Feldman, Ph.D., and Lee Daniel Kravetz. Their message: often we have choice between merely surviving and “supersurviving,” gaining from the traumatic experience.
Their chapters titles captivate: To Survive or to Supersurvive, The Paradox of Positive Thinking, The Truth of Illusion, The World We Thought We Knew, The Company We Keep, Awakened by Death, Faith’s Mixed Blessing, Forgiving the Unforgivable, The Right Choice. Let me give you a taste.
Feldman and Kravetz begin: “On the spectrum of trauma survivorship, everyone falls somewhere between hiding under a rock and becoming a rock star.” From survive to thrive. A majority of survivors feel strengthened by the experience, though not necessarily glad that it happened.
Positive thinking? It’s more pleasant than negative thinking, but the data on its influence on survival are mixed: be sure to take prudent preventive actions like mammograms and don’t optimistically search for unicorns.
Truth of illusion? Surveys show we think we are safer than we really are, perhaps leading to taking ill-advised risks, like texting while driving. Yet, studies have shown that CEOs generally are risk-takers, not because they underestimate the hazards, but because they are confident they can handle them, they have “grounded hope.” Hope stimulates action, fights depression, and serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Social support? It’s been shown to extend the lives of those in hospices after major disasters. Such help is a boon, even if temporary. Survivors do better emotionally when they expect continued support. A parent, spouse, sibling, or friend who stands by the survivor can make a world of difference.
Faith? Catholic nuns and Seventh Day Adventists have greater longevity than average. Faith sometimes consoles and inspires, but can also perplex or distract, when you break its rules.
Forgiveness? While physically and psychologically beneficial, forgiveness is hard and cannot fairly be expected of any victim. Still, as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted, an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

Limits---What if a Meteor Strikes You?
Just as the dose makes the poison, the degree of trauma can be too great to expect you to recover from. This varies from trauma to trauma and person to person. Furthermore, not every cloud has a silver lining. Yet, we can often salvage something even while regretting having been injured. We do the best we can.

Recovering from My Own Saddest Time
When I learned my first wife was having an affair, I decided to divorce her. I spent the next year dejectedly merely putting one foot in front of the other. I felt crushed. Our happy decade together seemed a lie. The second year was a bit better, dating, finally getting engaged but then disengaged. Not quite a happy time. I did, however, hope that perhaps divorce could work out for the best…if I could someday marry my college sweetheart, Tina Su. The rest is joyful history, as told in our Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion.

What You May Gain from Pain
Whether a blow crushes you or strengthens you will depend on the challenge, on your constitution, on your situation, and on your responses. Shakespeare’s Hamlet somewhat over-stated it, but there is truth in his “there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Often, we conquer trauma by how we choose to view it and what we learn from it.

Have you overcome a serious harm by how you chose to view it? What do you think are the limits to this? To what extent is it fair to expect this of others?

A former Harvard environmental science professor, Dr. Douglas Winslow Cooper is an author who helps others write and publish their books, via his coaching enterprise His life's central theme has been his half-century romance ( with Tina Su Cooper, his wife, now quadriplegic due to multiple sclerosis and receiving 24/7 nursing care at home, care discussed at their website here.


Originally published in a somewhat different form in:

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