Traumatic events can be a source of growth

We’ve been through tough times, but many low-level mental health issues can be made more manageable by increasing your resilience.

By Roderic Yap, Leadership Consultant

Mental Health Awareness Week is the perfect time to talk about how to deal with stress and mental trauma. It’s not news to say that more people are struggling with mental health issues as a result of the pandemic. However, it’s important to note a couple of points.

Firstly, the rise in people seeking support at work for mental health issues is partly a sign that we as a society are more willing to talk about it. Also, it’s no surprise that demand for mental health support has risen the more it is discussed. Demand for anything tends to increase once people realise it’s available.

Secondly, there is a difference between clinical depression and other serious medical conditions, and stress. Depression requires medical help. Stress, on the other hand, is manageable.

There are many causes of stress but in my experience the biggest of these is a lack of resilience. This is something I’ve come across a lot in my coaching career. It’s also a topic I’m very aware of due to my previous career in the Royal Marines, so let’s dig a little deeper into what’s causing some of these work-related stresses and how to manage them.

 

Most people want to be resilient, but few are willing to pay the price

The price for resilience is discomfort, and most of us instinctively shy away from discomfort. However, one way to increase your mental resilience is to increase your physical resilience.

This is something anyone can do, regardless of their physical limitations. Let me give you an example.

The other weekend, my boiler broke down. We had no hot water, so I called out an emergency plumber. It’s interesting to me that these days we live so comfortably that the notion of doing without hot showers for a few days now counts as an emergency.

But it made me think of cold showers, which are good for our immune systems. Anyone can get used to cold showers. You do it in increments. Start on day one by turning the temperature on your shower down by one or two degrees. Next day, reduce again. Next day, reduce again. Over the course of a week or two, if you do this consistently, your body will be prepared for taking ice cold showers every day.

This same idea works for sports training. I’ve been training over the last few months to run a marathon, to the point where last week I was able to run 14 miles. Had I attempted to run 14 miles at the start of my training, it would have destroyed me.

This is what you do when training. You deliberately put your body under stress for short, focused periods and then allow it to recover. You push yourself to your limit and stay there for a while. Then you recover. Then you push yourself to your limit again. Keep doing this over time, and your limits increase each time. That’s how you go from being able to run a couple of miles to being able to run 14 miles.

According to the evolutionary psychologist Gad Saad, many of the problems in modern society are due to over-abundance. We have too much food. Too much comfort. As human beings, our bodies and minds are not designed for this much comfort. We need short bursts of stress, similar to how we would have lived as hunter gatherers in the past when we needed to be able to hunt, or to sense and run away from predators.

Without short, intense bursts of stress our bodies atrophy, and our minds follow. This why during hard times – such as a pandemic – we’re not mentally prepared for the hardship.

Staying physically resilient – by training yourself to run a marathon or to get used to cold showers – is good for us because it mimics the kinds of short, focused stresses our minds and bodies evolved to deal with.

 

The benefit of reframing your experiences

Many of us catastrophise things. We speak of “terrible” weather, or the traffic being “a nightmare”. These kinds of reactions encourage us to blow up small irritations into huge problems – purely because of how we frame them in our minds.

We all do this from time to time. Even me. But it’s not helpful. As I say now to my kids, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing.

The moment you attach a feeling to outside forces you can’t control, you let those forces control you. You’ll allow yourself to be demotivated when it’s cold and dark in the morning, for example. It becomes a source of stress, purely because of how you frame it.

If you can move away from seeing things as good or bad, and instead think in terms of helpful or unhelpful responses, you should be able to put things into perspective much more easily.

 

Post traumatic growth

This same concept holds true for serious trauma. We’re all familiar with the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Far fewer people know the term “post traumatic growth”. This is when you come back stronger from a hardship, to the point where you’re almost glad of it for the growth opportunity it gave you.

Of course, for this to work means you need to be able to control how you frame your experiences.

The last 12 – 18 months have been stressful for a lot of people. But instead of dwelling on that stress, ask yourself what you’ve learned from it.

Have you gained a new appreciation and respect for teachers? I know I have.

Did you come away with a sense of gratitude if you work in an industry that has not been negatively impacted by the lockdowns?

I’ve done a group coaching exercise many times in my career which ends with me asking the participants about a personal challenge they’ve been through that was really, really tough. It’s a good measure of the psychological safety of the group. If they feel safe with each other they’ll share things about the time their father died, or about how conceiving their children was really hard.

What’s interesting is how often people will connect the hardship with the highlight. They also express gratitude for that experience because if that hadn’t happened, they wouldn’t be where they are today. What they’re hinting at there is this concept of post-traumatic growth.

When things are really bad and you’ve taken a metaphorical beating (even a literal beating in a few cases) you can learn a huge amount from it.

Take the example of my family life growing up. My father married four times and I’m one of five children. I don’t feel any resentment for this. It’s simply a fact. But I am very clear on my philosophy on how to try and be a better parent and how to try and be a good husband. I wouldn’t be so clear on that if I hadn’t had that example when I was growing up.              

Your family is like a hand in a game of poker. Some people have really good hands and some people have really bad hands. You can’t control that. It’s how you play the game that counts.

 

The dangers of long-term stress

My last point is related to that idea of lack of resilience I mentioned at the start of this article. Our minds and bodies are not designed for the over-abundance of modern life. From a material wealth point of view, this is the best time to be alive in history. We lack for nothing. And yet mental health problems have been on the rise for decades.

This is because we don’t exercise, we eat poorly, and we live with long-term chronic stress. For example, by working in careers we don’t like, or in companies with exploitative or incompetent management. Perhaps by taking on mortgages that we can’t really afford and then lying awake at night unable to sleep.

And whilst short-term, focused stress and recovery is good for us, long-term, chronic stress is bad for us. Because there is no recovery period. It’s a constant background pressure. No wonder so many of us get stressed – or develop more serious mental health problems – when we live so contrary to our nature.

In that sense – as with many other aspects of modern life – Covid has uncovered and intensified a problem that we as a society were already struggling with. For most of us, the pandemic was not traumatic as much, but rather an intensification of our existing chronic stress. It added to our financial pressures, or our worries about job security. Many people worried about the risks of dying from Covid. The pandemic took our chronic stress and kicked it up a notch or two.

In doing this, it exposed our lack of resilience.

So let me leave you with this. If the pandemic has been a traumatic experience, we can nevertheless choose how we react to it. I would encourage you to see it as a wake-up call to develop your resilience. We can all learn to be more resilient. As I said at the outset, all this really requires is some knowledge about how we evolved, and the willingness to endure some discomfort to get there.

 

Further reading

If you’re interested in exploring some of the ideas in this article around evolutionary psychology and how they relate to stress, resilience, and mental health, I encourage you to try one or more of the following books:

  • ‘Evolutionary Psychology’ by David Buss. This is a fairly thick textbook, now in its 6th Maybe more for the very serious, but the most eye-opening book I’ve red on the subject.
  • ‘Tribe’ by Sebastian Junger.
  • ‘Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature’ by Gad Saad.
  • ‘The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption’ by Gad Saad.

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