One of the concerns being raised by professionals in the mental health field focuses on fears about how emotional and mental health for large portions of the population will be negatively impacted as we move through this time of fear, anxiety, helplessness and grief.
I discovered a valuable article here that I think deserves our attention. Written on April 7, 2020, journalist Emily Esfahani Smith invites us to learn about something called tragic optimism, a term coined by Viktor Frankl, a well-known Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist from Vienna. He states that tragic optimism is the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss and suffering like what occurs when a crisis arises.
In research that looked at students who did much better in terms of mental health after 9/11, what set them apart was their ability to find the good in something that was overwhelmingly sad and tragic. “Unlike the less resilient students, the resilient reported experiencing more positive emotions, like love and gratitude.” What is important is that at the same time they did not deny the tragedy of what happened. She noted that in general, “… resilient people have intensely negative reactions to trauma. They experience despair and stress and acknowledge the horror of what’s happening. But even in the darkest of places, they see glimmers of light, and this ultimately sustains them.”
Smith goes on to say, “But even more than helping them cope, adopting the spirit of tragic optimism enables people to actually grow through adversity.”
It was once common for psychologists to believe in a victim narrative about trauma, that severe stress causes long-lasting and perhaps irreparable damage to one’s psyche and health. Smith noted that psychologists now know that only a small percentage of people develop the full-blown PTSD after tragedies like 9/11. She states that, “on average, anywhere from one half to two-thirds of trauma survivors exhibit what’s known as post-traumatic growth. After a crisis, most people acquire a newfound sense of purpose, develop deeper relationships, have a greater appreciation of life and report other benefits.”
A key perspective she offers: “It’s not the adversity itself that leads to growth. It’s how people respond to it. “
Growing after a crisis occurs when people spend time focused on making sense of what happened and understanding how it changed them in positive ways. In other words, they look for positive meaning in the midst of tragedy.
She notes that sometimes people are told to focus on things that make them happy, which can temporarily make them feel better. The operative word here is temporary. “When people search for meaning…, they often do not feel happy. The things that make our lives meaningful, like volunteering or working, are stressful and require effort. But months later, the meaning seekers not only reported fewer negative moods but also felt more ‘enriched,’ ‘inspired’ and ‘part of something greater than myself.’”
As important as it is to have some degree of hopefulness in all this without being pushed into seeing positives – which was the focus of my last blog – being able to make meaning out of adversity is a strange kind of gift adversity offers. Seeing ways adversity actually can inspire us to appreciate some of the positives that come out of it, brings a new level of meaning about life and what is important in it. Those include ways that people come together and care for each other, how they’re willing to expose themselves to danger in order to serve others, and to think less about themselves and more about what others need.
I saw a quote floating around on Facebook written by Natalie Oldham that I think frames the messages of this blog: “So, truth is, I don’t want things to return to the way they once were. I pray that we take the lessons and challenges of the past few weeks and create a new normal.”
My goal is to pray more, love harder and truly appreciate the daily abundance of blessings that were so easily overlooked just a mere few weeks ago.
Invitation for Reflections:
- How can you effectively blend experiencing your many intensely negative reactions to what is going on in the world today, realizing there are some unexpected positives?
- What are some of the ways you can find meaning in what is going on in the world today?
- What are some specific things you can do to experience traumatic growth? This includes small things as well as large ones: writing notes of gratitude and comfort to friends, contributing financially to food banks, making masks, checking in on elderly neighbors, even if you cannot give them a hug. Small gestures can have huge impact. Times like this afford us opportunities to find meaning in the midst of fear, anxiety and tragedy.