Three days before, Cassidy Stay had experienced the ultimate horror. Seven of her family members were shot dead in a bloody massacre inside her home. The 15-year-old survived the rampage that killed her mom, dad, sisters and brothers only by playing dead when a bullet struck her head, fracturing her skull. Now Cassidy, the day after her release from the hospital, stands before mourners at a community memorial service for her fallen family.
And she is talking about, of all things, happiness.
Somehow, the sole survivor of the nightmare visited upon the Stay family in Spring, Texas, on July 9 was explaining to a large gathering of sympathizers at the local elementary school how she is still managing to smile.
“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one remembers to turn on the light,” Cassidy told the mourners, quoting Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of the Hogwarts school from the Harry Potter books.
While I’ve never met this young woman, her words tell me she’s determined not to give in to the darkness, to the evil, that wiped out her family.
Would you be surprised to learn that you, like most people, are more resilient than you may have realized? If you watch or read the news, you may be under the impression that after experiencing a traumatic event, a young woman like Cassidy Stay would develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD can occur when someone experiences persistent anxiety, depression or even hatred in the aftermath of a traumatic or life-threatening event. It’s actually helpful to recognize the symptoms of PTSD so that you can seek help early. Real problems exist and fortunately we have many treatment options that can prevent unnecessary suffering.
Keep in mind that it’s normal to grieve, cry or even behave foolishly; it’s also common and even healthy to feel anxious, angry or depressed after traumatic events. These are a normal aftermath of experiencing trauma, yet these symptoms usually pass after a limited time and do not necessarily indicate someone has PTSD.
Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, teaches us that a problem can arise for those who assume that trauma necessarily leads to PTSD. Unfortunately, these types of thoughts and assumptions can become self-fulfilling prophecies. People who think, “I’m devastated, helpless, and from now on my entire life will be disastrous” are more likely to experience prolonged symptoms (which might have been avoided).
In fact, most folks experience trauma symptoms for only a limited time. Fortunately, when people know that trauma most likely leads to resilience, personal transformation and post-traumatic growth, they have better thoughts, such as, “This is hard, and I’m not comfortable, but I’ll eventually make it.” In turn, they may be more likely to respond when opportunities arise.
Following trauma, all of us have the ability to bounce back - not just to where we started before we experienced the trauma but to even greater heights. “Bouncing up” describes profound personal transformational change where people become even stronger than they were before the trauma. But beware of expectations, for they can undermine what progress you do make. Not everyone has major personal transformative change, and I’m not suggesting it's always the best outcome. It’s perfectly natural, normal and healthy to have a wide array of experiences.
So what does positive psychology say about Cassidy Stay? Positive psychology does not encourage a rose-tinted Pollyanna-esque delusion that all is well all the time. Instead, we recognize that sometimes horrible things do happen.
But watching the coverage of the lone survivor’s resilient spirit and positive message, I was reminded that while things don’t always happen for the best, it is always possible to see the best in what’s happened. Young Cassidy instinctively knew to look for a light in the darkness and encouraged others to do the same. I was also reminded that positive psychology, in part, focuses its study on resilient people like her so that we can discover, design and apply treatments for others who may face similar situations.
How do people like Cassidy Stay bounce back from tragedy? Do they nurture certain perspectives, mindsets or practices that we can teach others? Why are some people (kids, soldiers, public safety workers) seemingly invincible to adversity? Are they simply endowed with natural traits or can the rest of us can learn about and hone a malleable skill? Research teaches us that anyone can learn to “bounce up,” which really describes resilience, but it takes time, practice and grit. Resilience training is already showing promise in application from the Armed Forces to education, and my hope is that it can also improve outcomes in treating addiction.
The Road to Resilience
What is resilience? Simply stated, resilience explains the act of restoring peace of mind when bad stuff happens. In Resilience Factor, authors Karen Reivich and William Shatte define resilience as the ability to overcome hurdles, rebound from adversity and explore broadened horizons.
Resilience is flexible and accurate thinking that helps protect us from stress and helps us function optimally. It allows us to see ourselves as capable agents of change who simply experienced a temporary setback. When applied to addiction, it helps us see that, “so ... I’m an addict. It’s OK -- millions of human beings are diagnosed with this disease every year. And, many more are in recovery. Like they once did, I have the opportunity to rebuild my life starting here and now. I don’t have to keep digging myself into a deeper hole. Tomorrow is not here yet and I can’t change the past, but I can do this now and I don't have to perfect, either.”
Resilience allows us to see that everything will work out well in the end, even though threatening and stressful events happen and are part of life. Again, while some people seem to be innately resilient, resiliency is a human birthright, and as such, can also be learned. Here are some traits/behaviors to focus on to enhance your own resilience:
- Build connections/relationships: As Christopher Peterson, noted psychologist and positive psychology giant, says, “other people matter.” We crave human contact, and in times of adversity, other people can support us as we share difficult thoughts and feelings. As a Swedish proverb explains, friendship doubles our joy and divides our grief.
- Take charge of your emotions: People can learn to exert control over their thoughts, their feelings, their impulses, giving them influence over emotional responses to events. While easier said than done, I have witnessed even those who once lived in a state where emotional and behavioral dysregulation were the norm develop a powerful resilient spirit. But it takes time, practice and grit. (I can’t stress that point enough.)
- Control your impulses: Research finds that individuals with high self-control, those who are able to delay gratification and tolerate ambiguity, have greater physical and mental health, and fewer substance-abuse problems and criminal convictions. Impulse control and emotional regulation are closely related and key in resiliency development. And despite the self-deprecating “humor” often shared among those of us with addiction, impulse control is also a skill that can be strengthened.
For example, Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University and a leading researcher in behavior control, has found that practicing self-control activities for just a few weeks improves willpower. The exercises can be arbitrary, such as using your nonpreferred hand when brushing your teeth or eating. Or they can have meaning, such as working to manage money better. Baumeister’s studies show that overriding habitual ways of doing things by exerting deliberate control over one’s actions, over time, improves self-control.
- Be optimistic: Optimism wed to reality (a.k.a. “realistic optimism”), involves focusing on what is controllable (think “Serenity Prayer”). This kind of optimism is not about seeing only the positive, but seeing things as they are and striving to make the best of the situation. But since pessimism can be helpful at certain times, too, I prefer the term borrowed from Tiffany Shlain and her husband, “opticism,” which describes optimism with a healthy dose of pessimism.
- Be flexible and accurate in your thinking: Embrace change: it’s the only constant. Since much is under personal control, you can either embrace rigid thinking full of doubt and pessimism or embrace flexible and accurate thinking that is more beneficial and helpful in improving well-being, achieving success and building character.
- Be empathetic: The ability to identify and understand the emotions of others nurtures our social support.
- Become more forgiving: Though often misunderstood, forgiveness is not forgetting. Rather, forgiveness is a gift one gives to oneself to empower one’s own abilities, such as emotional regulation and flexible thinking, with benefits that range from equanimity to longevity.
- Build your sense of self-efficacy: When facing adverse events, people who believe that they will be able to exert control over their thoughts are more likely to succeed in doing so. What you believe you can do with your skills under extreme conditions will likely decide the outcome. As Henry Ford said, “whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.”
- Evaluate the meaning: Not necessarily focused on the positive, this may also involve seeing a reason for one’s suffering and arriving at an answer to the question, “Why did this happen?” Resilient people don't blame themselves when bad things occur. Instead, they blame negative events on causes outside of themselves.
The way we think drives the way we feel and what we do. This may seem so easy and obvious, but taking the time to truly understand this statement can help us learn not only how to handle hardships (i.e., financial insecurity, romantic hardships or relapse), but also how to turn adversity to our advantage.
Resilience can help maintain good and stable recovery, and if relapse does occur, resilience is also what prevents the relapse from spinning out of control. The good news is that anyone can be taught to recognize maladaptive thinking and change it, increase the accuracy of appraisals about life events and implications for the future, and enhance resilience.No matter what leads to a relapse, resilience enables people to take a broad view, learn from mistakes, and believe in their ability to exert control in the spheres over which they have power and accept those over which they don’t.
We can all learn how to turn traumas into growth opportunities. It all comes down to how we explain the good or bad things that happen to us. Human beings are conventionally adaptive, creative and dynamic. What makes us so difficult to study may be that “ordinary magic” which feeds our incredibly resilient spirit. It’s in all of us, it’s only a matter of discovering that “yes, I can be resilient, too.”
Jason Powers, M.D., is chief medical officer at Right Step’s family of Texas rehab centers and Promises Austin. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, a scientifically validated approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives upon achieving sobriety.