In fact, some people even thrive during periods of extreme stress. Young men and women in the military who go through U.S. Special Forces training experience some of the most extreme stress any human can face. Yet, those who complete the training have no lasting effects on their well-being. A study of these individuals sponsored by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City found, unsurprisingly, that Special Forces personnel display extreme resilience to intense stress.
Does this mean that some people are destined to crash under stress while others sail through it? Has God allowed some people to be hardwired one way or the other? The answer is, change is possible.
Another study looked at Vietnam veterans who were prisoners of war. These 750 POWs faced daily, ongoing stress. The researchers studied what factors were involved in those POWs who were able to withstand the torture and isolation. Ten critical elements were found that distinguished those who had high resilience from those who had low resilience.
- Optimism. There is a relationship between high optimism and high resilience. People who are more optimistic tend to be able to bounce back from high amounts of stress.
- Altruism. Coping with the trauma of being a prisoner of war was easier when people focused on others instead of always thinking about themselves. It seems that helping others was an effective way of maintaining high resiliency.
- Having a moral compass. Resiliency was strong for those POWs that had a set of beliefs that was not easily destroyed by threats or intimidation. Researchers have found the same results in Iraqi prisoners at Guantanamo. Those with the strongest faith have been the ones who been able to successfully resist interrogation.
- Faith and spirituality. For some POWs, prayer was a daily ritual. Those without a faith engaged other non-religious rituals to help them cope with the trauma.
- Humor. Comedians often call this "dark humor." We also know that people living in oppressed totalitarian countries tend to generate a lot of jokes about their predicament.
- Having a role model. This seems to keep one's mind off their own dire circumstances. Those who used this technique were able to tell themselves that "if that person can do it, so can I."
- Social supports. One of the most powerful pieces of high resilience is having someone in your life you can trust. This trust allows you to share some of your most deepest thoughts and emotions.
- Facing fear. Everyone has a personal comfort zone. High resilience makes it easier for people to leave their own safe place. This seems to go against our instinct but is nevertheless important for successfully managing trauma.
- Having a mission or meaning in life. Knowing that life is much greater than the trauma. Extreme pain tends to focus our mind on that one, current aspect of life. Knowing that you are destined for something better and more than just painful trauma allows you to cope more favorably.
- Training. This is the most hopeful aspect of managing trauma. Even though you may have a disposition towards low resiliency, we now know that you can learn to increase it. As a psychologist who has worked with people for several decades, I see firsthand that if I can enhance a person's view of his or her options in life, then resiliency can begin to increase and the effects of past trauma can begin to dissipate.
- What have you tried to do for yourself to manage traumas in your life?
- Have some tools been more successful than others?
- Do you think there might be others personal techniques that improve your own resiliency?
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