Stumbling Toward Post Traumatic Growth

I often run into the phrase Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But, I hadn’t heard of its flipside, Post Traumatic Growth, until I stumbled into experiencing it myself!

Growth
The Adversity of Breaking Up

A close colleague recently met with me to sever our relationship.

It wasn’t out of the blue. It came after a flurry of emotionally charged emails that I did my best (unsuccessfully) to answer.

I accepted their decision without any animosity. Although the reasons were legitimate, we’d known each other for a few years, and we’d been friends, so the separation still stung.

Body Trouble

I’m used to letting people go. Co-workers I’ve befriended leave for other jobs, neighbors move to other cities, people join and leave groups I belong to. I’ve left jobs, neighborhoods, and groups, too.

A few hours after our parting, I was with my partner enjoying a screening of The Haunting, a favorite slow-burn supernatural thriller that I’ve loved since childhood. I was mostly absorbed in the movie. But, that enjoyment was occasionally hijacked by distress signals my body demanded I address.

Apparently, I hadn’t fully processed the event. It had lodged in my body as a wound. A fancy Greek word for wound is trauma.

The Lessons of Trauma

Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, explains how, if we’re not careful, what we learn from trauma can negatively impact all aspects of our life.

When people feel helpless in one area of life, they not only give up in that one area; they often “overlearn” the lesson and apply it to other situations. They become convinced that one dead-end path must be proof that all possible paths are dead ends. A setback at work might lead to despondency about one’s relationship, or a rift with a friend might discourage us from trying to form bonds with our colleagues, and so on.

Post Traumatic Growth

Fortunately, the same book introduced me to the term Post Traumatic Growth, a phenomenon that Richard Tedeschi and his colleagues at UNC Charlotte have been studying for a couple of decades. What kind of growth comes from a brush with adversity?

Mr. Achor writes:

Increases in spirituality, compassion for others, openness, and even, eventually, overall life satisfaction. After trauma, people also report enhanced personal strength and self-confidence, as well as a heightened appreciation for, and a greater intimacy in, their social relationships.

ABCDs of Growth

To help us stack the deck for growth, Mr. Achor discusses the ABCD approach. It stands for:

Adversity.

Belief.

Consequences.

Disputation.

The acronym might have been new to me, but the wisdom behind it, is older than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Adversity

The adversity part in this model is an event that we cannot change.

My colleague’s decision to discontinue our relationship would be an example.

There’s a certain subjectivity even to labeling an event as adverse, so it might be useful to think of it as an event that we experience as a wound.

Belief

According to Mr. Achor:

Belief is our reaction to the event; why we thought it happened and what we think it means for the future. Is it a problem that is only temporary and local in nature or do we think it is permanent and pervasive? Are there ready solutions, or do we think it is unsolvable?

While I had to accept my colleague’s decision, I had the presence of mind to ask for their reasons. This allowed me to evaluate a specific set of opinions instead of imagining everything that I might have said or done wrong. The latter would have been more likely to send me on a downward spiral.

Consequences

Because of the explanation, and the legitimate differences of opinion it revealed, I didn’t believe the problem was permanent or pervasive.

I apologized for the emotional pain I had contributed to, but because it hadn’t been intentional I wasn’t wracked with extreme guilt or self loathing.

I found myself in the weird position of cognitive and emotional self-acceptance accompanied by a bodily experience of a major depressive episode!

Because I hadn’t learned helplessness, I knew enough to add additional social events to my calendar to replace the ones I would be giving up. That was the logical thing to do. But, I also had to heal my wounded body.

Disputation

Mr. Achor writes:

Disputation involves first telling ourselves that our belief is just that—a belief, not fact—and then challenging (or disputing) it.

In a training session I’d done with a professional cuddler, we had discussed how the naturally calming effects of oxytocin might make a cuddle session the ideal setting for processing a traumatic experience.

How we remember events is malleable. So, taking a troubling memory out for an airing in an environment of calm, acceptance, and trust (all side effects of oxytocin) might significantly change the future feeling tone associated with that memory.

Scheduling conflicts prevented me from booking a session with that cuddler before I had the opportunity to attend a group cuddle session (where my body’s panicky “beliefs” could be calmed). I immediately followed that by conversing with someone familiar with the relationship dynamics between me and my colleague.

My body calmed, and reassurance by a third party that I had made mistakes, but not out of maliciousness, helped calm my mind.

Unintentional Alignment

In retrospect, it’s surprising how my experience aligns with the kind of growth that Shawn Achor described in his book.

The trauma strengthened my confidence in my mindfulness practice, which some people consider spiritual. I had greater compassion for my colleague, recognizing that it must have been hard on them, too. I took the opportunity to be more open than I usually am, which helped me move a couple acquaintanceships toward friendships. I added social events to my calendar to replace the ones that I would no longer be attending, and began building relationships with people I wouldn’t have otherwise met.

In terms of lessons learned, I recognized that because writing and editing sharpens my critical sense, it’s sometimes challenging to turn off my fault-finding habit in areas where it doesn’t serve me. My being less critical may prevent others from deciding to sever relations in the future.

Ten Minute Exercise

Though we can’t heal wounds in ten minutes, we can practice disputing beliefs that can lead to learned helplessness.

1. Set a timer for two minutes. Write down beliefs about an adverse event in your life that have not led to personal growth.

2. Set a timer for six minutes. Write a disputation of one belief.

Ask questions like:

  • What is the evidence for this belief?
  • Does the evidence support only one conclusion?
  • How might a skilled defense attorney argue for another interpretation of events more favorable to their client?
  • Would we let a close friend or loved one get away with this reasoning?

3. Set a timer for two minutes. Check to see whether a disputed belief might lead to:

  • Increases in spirituality
  • Compassion for others.
  • Openness.
  • Enhanced personal strength.
  • Self-confidence.
  • Improved social relationships.

Additional options. Though it takes more than ten minutes, The Work of Byron Katie discussed in “One Belief at a Time” offers a very helpful framework for disputation. The One-Belief-at-a-Time and Judge Your Neighbor worksheets are available here under downloads.

Consistency and Taking Small Steps

“We tend to see success as an event versus this series of small steps that are taken day after day, or a series of choice points that are made over and over.” – Eric Zimmer

small steps

Eric Zimmer, host of The One You Feed podcast recently posted a mini-episode entitled “Essential Concepts: Consistency and Taking Small Steps.” He covers principles that he uses in his Transformation Program. Mr. Zimmer has personal experience with cultivating positive habits to overcome addiction, but the importance of consistency and small steps applies to depression, too.

Mistakenly Seeing Success as an Event

One sunny day on my way from the parking lot to my advertising job, I noticed an unfamiliar sense of well-being. I felt that the fog of my depression had lifted. The birds were singing, sunshine warmed my cheeks and a gentle breeze caressed its heat away. The meds had kicked in.

I thought my depression was cured. I saw this as the end of my journey, not a place to begin.

“It’s so easy,” says Mr. Zimmer, “to overestimate one defining moment but underestimate how important it is to keep making small improvements. In the beginning, and day by day, there’s not a huge difference between making a choice that’s a little bit better or a little bit worse. But, if you follow that over a period of time, big gains or big losses occur.”

That mistake cost me: in weight gain, rage, relationships, withdrawal, and years of cyclical misery.

Treating the Effect Instead of the Cause

I didn’t understand (nor did the medical community at the time) that an “imbalance” in my brain chemistry was an effect of depression, not the cause. No one was thinking of the brain as an organ that was constantly forming new neural connections based on our experience. Doctors didn’t associate a chemical imbalance in those same neural pathways as the physical manifestation of consistently taking small steps reinforcing depression-producing habit patterns.

No one told me that fine-tuning my brain chemistry without addressing the mental and behavioral habits that created it was comparable to:

  • Sticking my hand in a fire.
  • Anesthetizing my hand to numb the pain.
  • Sticking my hand in the fire again.
Misguided Values

“What we’re after,” says Mr. Zimmer, “is continuing to make small changes in the direction of what matters to us.”

What mattered to me at the time was beating depression with as little effort (taking a pill) as possible.

The drug helped restore the energy I needed to keep doing what mattered to me. But doing the things the media and my peers told me I needed to do to be happy led me to depression instead.

Doubting Well-Being

“The problem that a lot of us have is when we don’t see success quickly we tend to give up,” Mr. Zimmer continues. “We hear about the value of meditation, so we might meditate a few times and suddenly we don’t feel different, our life isn’t different, and so we stop. Or, we hear deep breathing sounds like it could really help me with my anxiety. So, we try and take a couple deep breaths a couple times, we don’t see any big difference, we stop.”

I had read enough about the new (at the time) class of antidepressants to overcome my doubt and put in the minimal effort for me to take them for three weeks. The drug manufacturer’s narrative was simple to accept. Depressed brains were vacuuming up serotonin too quickly. “Normal” (happy) brains allowed serotonin to hand around longer. The drug helped the serotonin hang around.

I had also dabbled with meditation and breath work, but not even Jon Kabat-Zinn could provide a simple enough narrative to assuage my doubts in them.

Science Versus the Supernatural

It’s a shame that the people who taught me gratitude and compassion also taught me about Noah’s Ark. The parents who taught me to take deep breaths and count to ten when I was angry also told me that Santa Claus visited every child on the planet in one night.

Donald Hebb’s 1949 assertion that “Neurons that fire together, wire together” might have been a less confusing teaching meme than “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It was, in any case, my reality.

With each set of neurons firing to produce a baby step that kept me vertical, neurons wired together and I remembered how to walk. The same thing happened when I associated a winged creature with the sound created when b-i-r-d is pronounced, and later wiring the neurons associating the letters with the sound.

It took time for the science to catch up, but, thanks to brain scans, we now know that consistent meditation, even in small doses, can grow the brain region associated with mood regulation and shrinks the region associated with volatile mood swings.

The science of intentional breathing is so effective at engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and easing anxiety that the US Military teaches it.

And it turns out that consistent small steps wiring together the neurons associated with social connection, cooperation, compassion, generosity, and gratitude all build a brain’s sense of balance and even contribute to longevity.

Self Compassion and Acceptance

“In the same way that we realize that small steps lead us toward a good thing,” reminds Mr. Zimmer, “we also realize that a couple of steps that aren’t taken, or a couple of steps in the wrong direction do not spell disaster. It just means we take the next step as soon as we can.”

As I noted in the post “Shame, Blame, and Self-Acceptance,” recovering from our stumbles begins with our admission that we’re not perfect. We never will be nor do we need to be. There’s no reason to blame ourselves or be ashamed of our lapses.

Even the manufacturers of my antidepressant included instructions for what to do when I accidentally skipped or doubled up on my dosage.

If I had accepted that taking an antidepressant was the beginning of my journey from depression to well-being and not the end, I could have lived many more depression-free or at least depression-resistant years. But nobody’s perfect.

Ten Minute Exercise

Listen to Mr. Zimmer’s mini episode (just shy of 10 minutes at 9:48) “Essential Concepts: Consistency and Taking Small Steps

Extra credit: subscribe to The One You Feed podcast.

Help to Make it Through the Night

On two successive Friday evenings I found myself lured toward depression by an inner voice that sounded very much like self compassion. My challenges on these two evenings helped me recognize the importance of spotting depression’s early warning signs and developing strategies to keep the beast at bay. 

night
Baby, It’s Cold Outside

I try to walk 10,000 steps a day. A week ago Friday, I logged half those steps on a lunchtime walk with my partner. She planned to walk to a yoga class in the evening, so I decided to go with her to get my remaining steps. 

About an hour before she left, the sky grew dark. It started to rain. The wind whipped up. She decided that she would drive to yoga instead. And my pseudo-compassionate inner voice told me that I should stay home. It was wet and blustery outside. Why not stay where it’s dry and cozy?

I’m Too Tired

On the second Friday, my partner had plans to join a friend to see Oregon Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker. I was happy that she was going, and happier that I wasn’t. 

When a friend called to ask if I wanted to go get happy hour fish ‘n chips at a nearby Irish pub, I said I would pass. I genuinely wasn’t in the mood for happy hour. 

The Dark Night of the Soul

In both cases it took me a while to realize that something was awry. I wasn’t behaving as I normally would. I’m good about getting my steps in. I’m up for a spontaneous happy hour. So, what was going on?

I’ve often heard depression described as the dark night of the soul. And, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two whisperings came on two of the longest Friday nights of the year.

My biological sleep timer releases melatonin at sunset to cue me that bedtime is approaching. I have no problem taking a walk at this hour most of the year. I have no problem accepting a happy hour invitation if there’s a trace of sunlight. On days when the sun never truly rises, and sets by 4:30 p.m., it’s a different story.

Fighting Back

If I didn’t know that exercise and spending time with others were the most effective ways to combat depression, I might have given in to that voice.

But, because I knew the inner voice was singing a siren’s song, I declined its advice.  

On the first Friday, I put on my rain gear and braved the night. The walk turned out to be lovely. It stopped raining, the wind died down, the air was fresh, and the holiday lights reflected on the damp pavement were lovely.

On the second Friday, I changed my mind and told my friend I’d go. We walked over to the local Irish pub. The happy hour fish ‘n chips and Guinness were delicious. My friend is one of the only people in my life willing to discuss politics. It was fun.

The Holiday Cure

It’s no coincidence that we in the Northern Hemisphere have packed so many holiday celebrations around the longest night of the year. We string up colorful lights to compensate for the darkness and the absence of autumn leaves. We practice generosity by exchanging gifts. We get together with family and friends. We overeat to pack on the fat to help keep us warm.

Unfortunately, since all of these antidotes to the winter doldrums are artificial, some of us don’t respond to them. Somehow, all the things we’re told we should do to be joyful only make us feel more alone. 

Lost in Translation 

For me, showing love for others by giving and receiving gifts got shelved during my years in retail advertising. I lived with Christmas six months a year. I witnessed little generosity, lots of stress and greed. I can still recall the ghost of one Christmas past when an art director friend, who, after working sixteen hour days for twenty-one days in a row dropped dead on her Monday morning bus ride. Ho ho ho.

Since this seemed to be the only love language my family spoke, I felt alone, and guilty for feeling alone. 

I didn’t know that there were four other love languages, according to Gary Chapman, that spoke to me. 

Ten Minute Exercise

If the traditional prescriptions for getting through these long winter nights don’t resonate, gift yourself ten minutes to consider whether one (or more) of these prescriptions does. 

1. Words of Affirmation

I wrote about my thank you experiment in my previous post. By continuing to give thanks to the people in my life, I’ve been receiving all the words of affirmation I could ask for.

2. Quality Time

I spoke to a woman at a Solsara Introduction Meetup who had ditched her office holiday party in favor of an evening of exercises in authentic, mindful communication. She was surprised how much difference sustained eye contact and attention to her breathing and internal emotions made in the quality of communication. 

Meetup.com offers lots of ways to connect with people who spend quality time participating in shared interests. 

3. Acts of Service

I volunteered to lead a discussion for my meditation group on the work of Byron Katie. I was surprised how open everyone was about sharing beliefs that caused them stress, and how eager they were to work through that stress together. 

Volunteering is a wonderful way to receive while giving.

4. Physical Touch

A 20-second hug is the fastest relief I’ve found for counteracting depression and anxiety. I got to watch the power of touch work its magic again the other day at a drop-in cuddle at Portland Social Connection.

This is something you definitely should try at home if you have a consensual partner. If you don’t, seek out group cuddles, a professional cuddler, or a Swedish massage.

Oh, and don’t forget to exercise.

Gift of Thank You!

What should you get your friends and co-workers this holiday season? How about something they’ll thank you for by returning or re-gifting it?

Thank You Scarf
Give a SCARF

Stop! Before you click away, let me clarify what I mean by SCARF. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, uses the acronym SCARF to describe six gifts that all humans want from each other: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

How do I know this is what your friends and co-workers want? When our ancestors earned their living by hunting and gathering in small tribes, these qualities led to more and better mating opportunities. Regardless of what your ancestors left us in their wills, they left us brains that view our SCARF as essential to survival.

Choking Hazard

Unfortunately, if we rely on others to give us a SCARF when we most need one, we may find ourselves out in the cold. And if we hold onto our own SCARF too tightly to keep others from snatching it, we may accidentally strangle ourselves.

Surprisingly, the best practice for assuring you’ll have a SCARF when you need one is to give them away year-round.

Thank You Messages

In helping people move from depression to well-being, I’m more motivated by pragmatism than altruism. 

So, for the past week or so I’ve been sending thank you emails and messages not because therapists recommend it, but because Google engineers do.

Many of the best engineers in the world start their workday by sending a quick thank you message to a colleague.

Status

When your friend or co-worker reads your appreciative message it gives their sense of status a boost.

People who receive such messages reply with a “thank you” or the occasional “you made my day” at much higher rates than the average message.

When they do, this gives your sense of status a boost. 

(Note: on the occasions when recipients don’t reply, you’re still ahead of the game. See Relatedness below.)

Certainty

As hunter gatherers, our bellies gave us crucial feedback on whether we’d had a successful day. 

Since the invention of the assembly line it’s been harder to pinpoint our role in the overall scheme of things. This leaves many of us uncertain about our value to the company, and to the friends we don’t see as much as we used to. 

Composing a thank you email reminds us that people have done things that we value. Letting them know can help give them certainty. Maybe much needed certainty if they read it before a morning full of seemingly pointless meetings.

Autonomy 

The best jobs offer us autonomy in how we accomplish our goals. But, if we don’t currently have a job that offers a lot of choice, we can still practice autonomy in who we thank.

After we thank the people who help us most often, we force ourselves to become creative and thank people for things that we may have taken for granted.  

Relatedness

If we have a job that doesn’t constantly put us in touch with other people, it’s easy to lose sight of our interconnectedness. Sending thank you messages helps us recognize that we have been the beneficiaries of great kindness and connection.

That connection or kindness may no longer be a part of our everyday lives, but bringing it to mind strengthens our sense of relatedness.

Studies show that recognizing the depth of our social connections is as important a predictor of longevity as obesity, high blood pressure, and smoking. 

Fairness

The only problem that I’ve experienced so far in thanking people is that it requires so little effort that it doesn’t seem fair.

But, as I review how it benefits both parties when it comes to Status, Certainty, Autonomy, and Relatedness, I have to conclude that it is.

Two Minute Exercise

1. Take a piece of paper or a text document and on each line write down one aspect of SCARF.

Status

Certainty

Autonomy

Relatedness

Fairness 

2. Give yourself a score from 0-10 on how you currently rate yourself on each aspect.

3. For 21 days (or 21 work days) write a thank you message to someone from your past or present who has helped you. Be specific about how.

Examples: 

I used your Excel spreadsheet tip yesterday and it saved me twenty minutes. Thank you so much for sharing that with me.

Thank you so much for your honest feedback about my performance. I look forward to honing my skills.

Thank you so much for getting back to me yesterday about my question so quickly.

4. After 21 days, repeat step one. 

5. Compare the first SCARF sheet with the second.  

Bonus Points: Take 20 seconds to thank a friend or co-worker face to face. Make eye contact when you do it. The benefits you receive from face to face thanks have a multiplying effect.

Extra Bonus Points (in a little over a minute): 

Watch the video of Shawn Achor and Oprah on Thank You Messages (1:20)

And here’s Rick Hanson’s take on “Say Thanks