Two new books show how trauma can bring out our greatest strengths.
I’d been reading Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs when I hit a few wrong keys on my computer and accidentally deleted my utilities folder. It’s the kind of thing that sets you into a the-world-is-coming-to-an-end panic, which I felt, but only briefly. The book had equipped me with a sense of perspective, and I calmly went about the business of restoring what I’d lost. Now, eight hours later, I still can’t print documents or send emails, but I’m heartened by the knowledge that I’m a stronger, more resilient person.
Bouncing Forward was written by Michaela Haas, a mindfulness coach with a Ph.D. in Asian Studies and Buddhism teacher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her subject is post-traumatic growth—the positive, transformative changes that some people experience as they struggle with adversity.
The upside of adversity
Also on my nightstand is another new volume, Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth by journalist Jim Rendon. Both of these books share stories of people who have withstood staggering crises: they were prisoners of war or concentration-camp survivors, they lost a child or their entire family to a drunken driver or a natural disaster, they were left paralyzed after a horrific accident or they were the victims of unspeakable violence. With hard work and grit each eventually emerged from trauma with deeper relationships, a new sense of purpose and an increased appreciation of life. It’s impossible not to be moved, inspired and fortified by these tales.
Few of us, as Michaela writes, will be attacked by a shark, as surfer Bethany Hamilton was, or targeted by the Taliban, like Malala Yousafzai, the extraordinary Nobel Prize-winning advocate for girls’ education. But we all endure loss and pain in our lives and we can all learn lessons from the science of post-traumatic growth on how to deal with bad breaks, both the small ones—like a computer crash—and the ones that rip apart the fabric of our lives.
Three daily habits, according to Michaela and Jim, will help us cultivate courage and resilience in the face of adversity:
Spend 12 minutes every morning and every evening meditating. Simply sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed or slightly open and bring your attention to your breath, observing how it fills your body and then flows out again. If your attention wanders to the sound of a honking horn outside or your to-do list, gently, without reproach, bring your attention back to your breath. Meditation, Michaela says, trains us in regulating stress and calming fear, the very skills we need to confront and recover from adversity.
You might want to experiment with a form of meditation called Loving-Kindness Meditation (sometimes called Compassion Meditation). Again, sit in a comfortable position and pay attention to your breath. Then, focusing on your heart region, Michaela suggests, think about someone for whom you have very warm, positive feelings. Now replace the focus on your breath with these thoughts as you inhale and exhale: “May you enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness,” “May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.” After a few minutes extend those warm thoughts to yourself: “May I enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness,” “May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.” This practice of loving-kindness enhances your ability to generate positive emotions even in the face of a distressing situation.
Cultivate a practice of gratitude and appreciation. Every day, write down three things you are grateful for; jot down the first three things that come to mind. These can be little things—the basil that’s blooming in your backyard garden—or bigger things, like good news on a medical test. “When the pudding hits the fan, appreciation becomes invaluable,” Michaela says, but it’s also easy to become downtrodden as we confront challenges. If your default position is to focus on the gifts in your life, you’ll find it easier to keep your spirits uplifted and move on to what needs to be done.
Instead of shutting out other people by texting or checking emails as you go through your day, look for opportunities to engage. A rich body of research, Jim says in his book, shows that connection with other people is a key predictor of growth after a traumatic event. Even online communities help trauma survivors of all kinds feel more optimistic, confident and empowered. So, consider an experiment: for a few days, make a point of chatting with the barista at your coffee shop or the cashier at the supermarket; smile at passers-by on the street; hold the elevator doors for a stranger. You might discover that these small acts of building community provide a boost to your sense of well-being.
Shelley Levitt is a freelance journalist based in Southern California, and editor at large for Live Happy.