Tuesday, November 13, 2012

New findings in how to survive stress

Time  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experts Dr. Steven Southwick and Dr. Dennis Charney investigate the power of resilience in their new book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.

Recovering from a natural disaster takes physical and psychological strength, and as those attempting to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy are learning, it doesn’t hurt to have help. To better understand which tools help us to bounce back from trauma and cope with stress, Southwick, a psychiatry professor at Yale University, and Charney, a psychiatry professor at Mount Sinai Hospital, studied Navy SEALs, rape survivors, prisoners of war and others who overcame highly stressful situations with only minimal mental hardship. It turns out that these survivors share critical skills that can support anyone, even those who haven’t been professionally trained or naturally endowed with resilience, to better combat trauma. [...]

Another surprising factor involves being true to your own morals…
DC: It’s to embrace a personal moral compass,  develop a set of beliefs that very few things can shatter. That’s really important. It was very important to the POWs. They were being tortured, but their own set of beliefs about what was right [could] not be touched
SS:  I don’t think I was expecting that to be as powerful as it was. [But] one of the things often happens in highly stressful situations, particularly if someone else is injured or killed is that there’s a tremendous tendency to develop survivor guilt.
We’ve interviewed some medal-of-honor winners.  They are the bravest of the brave. There are only some 200 of them in the U.S.  No one could do more.  But the few we interviewed in depth, they have survivor guilt. They felt that they should have done more. [So] that’s going to happen no matter what you do and you don’t want to add to that if you violate some principle you think is important.

What role do religion and spiritual beliefs play in resilience?
DC: That comes under a moral compass. Some develop strong beliefs independent of religion and others find it very helpful. It’s not important for everybody but for some people, it’s very important. When we studied [those in poverty] in  DC, who were largely African American, religion was very important. Going to services was very useful for establishing social networks,  in addition to the core beliefs. It adds to the other elements.  Some of the POWs found religion to be very important,  but not every one of them.[...]

What can parents do to help their children become resilient?
SS: [As a parent] you are affecting and molding the way your child’s stress hormones and nervous system will respond in the future. It’s very plastic and you are, by the type of stress you’re exposing them to and the way you respond, [helping shape] the degree to which they will master it or not. This  affects how the stress response will work in adulthood.

The problem is either neglect or over-parenting. You want to be the helicopter swooping down and fixing it, but then the child doesn’t learn how to meet these challenges. You have to really know where is ‘out of the comfort zone’ and where they flip into an inability to [cope] and become overwhelmed. And people are so different and so unique. I love the term ‘Good-enough Mother’ from the [child psychiatrist] D.W. Winnicott. You just need to be good enough.

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