“I became a better doctor, a better parent, a better commander, probably a better person.”
When Army surgeon Rhonda Cornum regained consciousness after her helicopter crashed, she looked up to see five Iraqi soldiers pointing rifles at her. It was 1991, and her Black Hawk had been shot down over the Iraqi desert. Dazed from blood loss, with a busted knee, two broken arms, and a bullet in her shoulder, the then-36-year-old medic was subjected to a mock execution by her captors, sexually assaulted, and held prisoner for a week.
Her crisis included textbook causes for post-traumatic stress: a near-death experience, sexual assault, utter helplessness. And yet, after her release and medical rehabilitation, she surprised psychiatrists by focusing on ways she’d improved. “I became a better doctor, a better parent, a better commander, probably a better person,” she says.
Cornum’s experience is far from unique. The term post-traumatic growth, coined by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, describes the surprising benefits many survivors discover in the process of healing from a traumatic event. After counseling cancer survivors, the bereaved, the severely injured, veterans, and prisoners, the researchers found growth in five main areas: personal strength, relationships with others, perspective on life, appreciation of life, and spirituality.
Tedeschi doesn’t believe trauma is a good thing. But, he says, “in the wake of trauma, people become more aware of the fragility in life, and that unsettles some while it focuses others. This is the paradox: People become more vulnerable yet stronger.”
Cornum is convinced that resilience is like a muscle; it strengthens when exercised and atrophies when neglected. In 2009, she became the director of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, a training regimen that now falls under the umbrella of the Army’s Ready and Resilient (R2) initiative.
Today, every U.S. Army soldier takes part in resilience training, which has been shown to significantly decrease substance abuse and increase good coping skills, adaptability, and character strength. The training is so successful that psychologists believe it can help people from all walks of life.
The program is something of a dichotomy. The military thrives on teamwork, yet during resilience training, soldiers concentrate on self-awareness. They learn how to focus on the present moment.
Practicing a rhythmic breathing exercise, participants inhale deeply and exhale fully in a slow cadence. Focusing on their breathing helps them unlock muscle tension. Harvard University neurobiologist Sara Lazar has shown that “meditation can literally change your brain.” It can actually shrink the amygdala, the “fear centre” in the brain that might be enlarged after a trauma and trigger flashbacks of anxiety and panic.
Because being thankful may help lower anxiety levels, the Army instructs soldiers to “hunt the good stuff” by keeping gratitude journals. Studies at the University of California, Davis, show that grateful people not only report being more content with their lives but also have fewer medical symptoms and more energy. Just as important to the Army, cultivating gratitude tends to make people more social and willing to help and work with others. So every day, soldiers jot down three things they were grateful for in the previous day.
To help them learn from their good fortune, they write about each event using the following prompts: Why has this good thing happened? What does this good thing mean to me? What can I do tomorrow to enable more of this good thing? How did I or others contribute to this good thing?
If pen and paper aren’t handy, GIs are encouraged to blot out feelings of self-blame with a tactic known as detecting “icebergs”—beliefs and values that fuel out-of-proportion reactions.
For instance, if an action causes a soldier to feel shame, he or she is instructed to work through it by asking these questions: What is the most upsetting part of the situation to me? What thoughts are triggering the emotions and reaction that I’m having? Identifying our own precepts as icebergs allows us to recognize whether they’re true obstacles to helping ourselves or relating to others, and learn how to steer around them.
One of the most important findings about resiliency is also one of the most basic. Resilient people have one trait in common: a sense of optimism, says Cornum, who retired from the service as a brigadier general in 2012. As she told medium.com, “They believe a problem is in a time frame and not forever, and that there is something you can do about it.”
For more than 20 years, retired general Roméo Dallaire has grappled with post-traumatic stress disorder. But there’s hope in speaking of horror.