I’ve been visiting my children and grandchildren on the west coast for the past two weeks, and with 9/11 upon us, it is a stark reminder that I need to get back to work. There are people out there who need to learn more and want to recover from trauma and tragedy. But, hey, isn’t that what 9/11 is all about?
OK. 9/11 is not only about recovery from trauma and tragedy, but recovery is a really important factor. One of the most important lessons from this terrible tragedy is not what most people focus on. It is about those people who seem less effected by the terrorist events. I am not referring to people who were not effected at all, but those who seem less effected because they quickly bounced back to normal. Most Americans were able to resume normal lives quite rapidly after that fateful September morning, even those who were terribly shaken by the attacks. What does that teach us about surviving and recovering from other trauma? How can we learn from their experience to improve the lives of others who have experienced other tragedies, trauma and abuse?
The technical term for the ability to bounce back from negative events is called “resiliency”. We know that some people are more resilient and others are less resilient. We also know that regardless of a person’s natural resiliency, it can be broken through multiple and consistent trauma. On the other hand, we know that, at least in regards to childhood trauma, resilience is bolstered when the child has at least one supportive relationship. One adult who believes and supports a maltreated child can often (but not always) save that child from the ravages of complex PTSD.
But people with high resilience are not often studied. They are the ones that have a good life (or reasonably goo life) despite the trauma they endured. They do not go for therapy, and they see no reason to dig into painful past memories. This is most unfortunate, because they certainly can shed light, or offer insights into the strengths needed to change a terrible life into a flourishing thriving life.
Fortunately there were some scientists who were thinking this way ten years ago. Most prominent among them was Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina. Looking at the whole population she found that people who bounced back had a greater amount of positivity in their lives. They recognized and felt the full impact of the tragedy, but also had the strength to reinstate hope and planning for the future.
If you suffer from PTSD you are probably saying to yourself, “Great. But what about me? They are the lucky ones. My life is overwhelmingly negative.” While that might be true, there are many techniques and exercises to build the ability to add positivity in your life. Some are simple and some are more work. But there is definitely some way of adding the positive in your life.
I am not talking about the Pollyanna, “look at the good side”, “just get over it” type of work. I am also not saying that the work of reducing troubling symptoms is not important. Not at all. One needs to address anxiety, flashbacks, anger triggers, etc. But it is not really enough. You need an additional focus on the things that make life worth living. Activities that engage you. Ideas that give meaning to your life. Relationships that that fill you with joy. Achieving goals that raise you up further and further.
In each one of us there are seeds, saplings or trees made of one (or more) of the following ten emotions: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and/or love. Even if it is just a seed of one of them, you have the ability to grow, thrive, survive, and flourish.
Scientists learned that from 9/11. We can learn from them now. We can not only get rid of negativity but let’s work on the positive also!