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For the Ohio kidnapping victims, is healing possible?

May 24, 2013

One of the more dramatic stories in the news recently has been about the three young women who were kidnapped about 10 years ago in Ohio and recently freed. Fortunately, while the trauma they have experienced has no doubt been horrendous, they are physically intact, and initial indications are that they will be able to heal and recover. Of course, I do not know these women, but I can guess one thing from the fact that they survived so long without contact with the outside world and their loved ones. They must have had some resilience within themselves that allowed them to remain hopeful and provide support to one another through those long years.

I think one of the reasons I have stayed in human services so long is that while I have certainly witnessed the pain experienced by the clients I’ve seen, I have seen their ability to bounce back just as clearly. I once had a client who said she had been to see ten therapists before me and she hadn’t felt much relief as a result. I was most curious about why she decided to see an eleventh counselor. What was it that kept her seeking help when, by her own description, it hadn’t made much of a difference? She identified that she was determined, able to question the negative opinions of others, and had a strong sense of hope. These were strengths she had not recognized in herself before.

What is resilience?

Resilience is the ability for people to experience loss, trauma, or upset and maintain a high level of functioning. It isn’t that resilient people don’t feel sad, or scared, or angry. It is just that they are able to cope with those feelings and pass through them without losing their ability to function well in other areas of their life. Trusting that it is possible to get through life’s bumps and remain intact is an important factor in resilience. Like the little train in the children’s story who said, “I think I can, I think I can…” we indeed function better when we believe it is possible to do so.

The characteristics of resilience

George Bonano, from Columbia University, has identified what he calls “multiple and sometimes unexpected pathways to resilience.” In his article “Loss, Trauma and Resilience” he asks if we have “underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely adverse events.”

Hardiness

Bonano names several characteristics that appear to contribute to resilience, some of which are not necessarily considered positive coping styles in most situations. The first characteristic is hardiness, which he says has three dimensions: “being committed to finding meaningful purpose in life, the belief that one can influences one’s surroundings and the outcome of events, and the belief that one can grow from both positive and negative life experiences.” People who exhibit hardiness tend to face adversity by seeing what actions they can take, even if they don’t have total control in a situation. They even see adverse experiences as useful. They view themselves as capable, and they are more likely to reach out for social support. Accessing support from others helps them cope with the upset they do feel.

Positive emotion and laughter

Positive emotion and laughter are also named in Bonano’s article. When I have worked with people who lost a loved one, they have often said that thinking back on the positive aspects of that relationship and remembering how it enriched their lives was a great comfort. Yes, they were sad to no longer have those parts of the relationship in their day-to-day life, but remembering those times provided more pleasure than pain. Gratitude, love, acceptance and even the good feelings that come from helping others seem to help us feel better and adjust more positively to almost anything.

Self-enhancement

Two traits that aren’t always viewed positively, but may help a person get through adversity are self-enhancement and repressive coping. Self-enhancement is the tendency to think very positively about yourself and your talents. The song “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” from the musical Annie Get Your Gun comes to mind. Self-enhancers may overrate themselves and their abilities, but perhaps believing that you have what it takes to get through anything allows a person to see more ways to adapt and problem-solve.

Repressive Coping

The other trait, repressive coping, is the tendency to avoid upsetting thoughts and emotions. Spiritual leaders, therapists and philosophers have long encouraged people to tackle ”one thing at a time” or “stay in the moment” in times of stress. People sometimes report an ability to compartmentalize in crisis. Focusing on only the next task can create clarity and keep us from feeling overwhelmed. Maybe Scarlett O’Hara was just being resilient when she said, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Researchers are starting to see that resilience is more common than previously thought and definitely not limited to people who are somehow heroic. My work with people has led me to the same conclusion. I’ve been moved to tears more often when I’ve been touched by someone’s everyday tenacity, than I have by thinking about the adversity they have faced. I’ve seen it repeatedly—people survive things we think are almost un-survivable. We all have. The three girls who have graced recent news headlines, and the families who have survived the recent tornado in Oklahoma are great examples of this.

I am inspired by those who keep putting one foot in front of the other and continue to hope and try. I think this is our primary survival skill and the capacity that brings out the extraordinary in all of us.

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