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Beyond Resilience: Creating Post-traumatic Growth

School mornings were always a bit of a scrimmage. Had everyone got everything they needed for their day? Did Tom have his sports socks? Did Sophie have her oboe? Did John have a clean and ironed shirt, did I have my packed lunch in my bag?

That September morning, as I walked across the kitchen shepherding the kids towards the garage to take them to school, John said, “I’ve just heard something on the radio, I think we need to turn on the TV.”

Seriously?

But we did and watched the newsreel of surreal images of two passenger aircraft deliberately flying into the Twin Towers in New York. Surely this couldn’t be real?

But as we know, it was, and twenty years on, those initial images on the telly remain as clear and horrific in my mind as they were then.

Dealing with trauma either directly or indirectly can change your life in an instant. Being exposed to repeated trauma over a period of time changes your brain. Those stressful events sometimes morphing into endless replays of flashbacks, catastrophising thoughts and high levels of anxiety.

When working as a junior doctor in ED, I witnessed some horrible scenarios. Mangled bodies from MVAs, nasty burns, self-inflicted wounds. It was emotionally challenging, and I knew emergency medicine was not the career path for me.

 

How do you handle repeated exposure to trauma, especially when it’s your job?

There’s a great deal of talk about it being a question of resilience and unless you’ve got your full quota you’re not going to be up to the task.

I disagree.

We are all resilient and often far more resilient than we give ourselves credit for.

While genetics plays a role, what counts is understanding how resilience works, how to maintain, strengthen and make it sustainable to carry you through the next challenge or time of adversity. 

Resilience is far more than “bouncing back.”

It reflects your brain’s ability to handle stress and it depends on your neuroplasticity.

 

Why are some people more resilient than others?

Could it be that some do have a special resilience booster or have downloaded the resilience app on their phone? 

No, but research has shown some of us carry a greater number of resilience genes that when activated serve to dampen down the brain’s stress response more quickly and easily. If only we could know, which ones amongst us carry these extra little beauties.

But even without those extra genes, you can strengthen your resilience muscle by adopting those lifestyle choices that optimise your ability to retain clarity of thought – essential in times of emergency when your next decision could mean the difference between life or death. It’s also about learning how to calm your overstimulated and excited brain and to reduce the intensity of any associated emotion.

I recently had the opportunity to present to over 800 fire and emergency services volunteers about this. To be with this wonderful group of humans was such a privilege, and the conversations I had afterwards with individuals who were so selfless, warm-hearted and inspiring. These are ordinary people, like you and me who choose to step up to serve and protect their communities, because they can, because they want to and because they are proud to be part of a valuable team, even though it is not without risk to their own safety.

I met a young woman who lives in the Perth hills, who volunteers as a “Firey” and is about to start her time at medical school to become a doctor. I met grandmothers who have donated time to their local bush fire brigade for decades. I met team leaders from marine rescue, canine rescue, and other fire brigades from around the State.

These unsung heroes who give so much, are also at risk of high stress, exhaustion, PTSD, anxiety, and depression. How do you handle being involved in a rescue effort when the casualty is a member of your own family? How do you keep focused on saving your neighbour’s house when you have no idea if your own will still be standing at the end of the day? 

 

Knowing how to cope, how to manage stress levels and maintain mental wellbeing is crucial.

As Scott Barry Kaufman author of Transend reminds us, resilience and adversity can lead us towards posttraumatic growth. As defined by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun this is the positive psychological change experienced because of struggling with highly challenging life circumstances.

Like living through a time of a global pandemic.

But your resilience will not fail you even at the most testing of times, when you choose to control only what is controllable, accept your circumstances, give yourself permission to step back and draw breath when you’re exhausted and hold onto that hope and realistic optimism that things will eventually sort themselves out.

Above all, it is by coming together, looking out for each other, showing kindness and compassion to others (and yourself) that serves to provide us with purpose and meaning.

As Viktor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning” said, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”

Rebuilding, resetting, reimagining your future requires ongoing curiosity to what is possible, holding firm to your strengths and values and continuing to appreciate the good.

How will you use this time of struggle to emerge stronger, with a strong sense of purpose and clarity on how you will choose to live your life?

 

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase

If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.

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