Good Things from Traumatic Experience, Part 1: Influence & Healing

This title sounds like an oxymoron.  But, I know from a personal recent traumatic event that it is not only possible but enormously beneficial.  (More on that in a minute…)  Just as I wrote in a previous post (Positive Lists About “Bad” Situations), when we find something good in a bad situation, it helps us to not stay stuck in the awful feelings, such as, suffering, dread, anxiety, victimhood, fear, or anger.  When we feel negative emotions, it does not help anyone.  We can’t feel bad enough to make someone feel better or to make better circumstances happen for someone.  Our good feelings and actions, however, can help someone.

This I know because my husband recently had emergency heart bypass surgery.  Scary, shocking, painful, stressful, devastating, traumatizing, horrific.  For him and myself (in different ways) it was all those bad feelings and more.  But, the purpose of this series of posts is not to describe the details of just how dreadful it all was.  The point is that I got some good –I mean, really amazing– realizations out of the trauma and recognized the huge benefit of focusing on those rather than dwelling on the awfulness.

This post is specifically about the influence people have on others.  For instance, during the hospital stay, I started noticing how Don’s physical status would change based on the personality of the nurse.  If she or he was grumpy or pessimistic, he’d stay where he was or get worse.  When the shift would change and the new nurse was optimistic and lighthearted, he’d almost instantly show improvements physically and he had hope.  I was amazed –and frightened– of that power!

I soon realized I couldn’t leave his physical improvement up to a random nurse that I had no control over.  I was with him more often than not, so I had to be the upbeat, loving, optimistic, light, and happy one.  And so, that’s what I did despite feeling scared, exhausted, angry, sad, and confused.

I was optimistic about him getting better.  But I also had a general upbeat mood. Additionally, I spent a lot of time distracting him.  Nobody wants to sit around 24/7 talking about feeling better when they feel crappy!  I did everything from reading aloud to doing trivia questions and puzzles to showing videos of our dog to playing music.  What this did was take his mind off of fear, depression, and pain.

So, there are two things going on here that I realized: 1) Our emotions have an effect on others and 2) positivity and optimism –plain ol’ feeling good– promote healing.

Sidenote:  Of course, the surgery, procedures, medicines, and expertise of the medical staff all played a significant role.  Absolutely an understatement.  But, after the major procedures were finished and he wasn’t improving for a couple of days, the most significant aspect was the love, kindness, and upliftment from others.  (And it wasn’t only me; many family, friends, and medical staff were positive, kind, and helpful, as well!)

First, regarding our emotions influencing others.  Have you ever been in a room when someone really upbeat entered and the whole feeling in the room shifted?  And surely you’ve noticed the power that charismatic people have on affecting others.  It’s actually been shown that emotions are contagious.  People unconsciously take on the feelings of others, especially those closer – physically and personally- to them.  Psychologists have studied this and even termed it, emotional contagion – humans synch their own emotions with those expressed by people around them.  It is primarily a subconscious, automatic process that takes place in the brain. It’s an instinct that goes back to caveman days when humans couldn’t rely on language to communicate their feelings.  Studies have shown that people automatically mimic and emotionally synchronize with another in a matter of milliseconds.

On the second realization, there are scientific studies that confirm the link between positive emotions and healing.  It’s been known that stress has major negative repercussions on the body.  Chronic stress releases too much cortisol and adrenaline that cause immune cells to not function properly.  On the flip side, it has also been found that positive emotions decrease these stress hormones and boost the immune system.  The positive, good-feeling emotions release endorphins -natural chemicals in our bodies- which enhance the immune response.

Interestingly, during the trauma, a part of me (ego) had felt guilty for being upbeat and positive.   My ego said I should be serious and show concern!  To the ego, it appeared like I didn’t care because I didn’t outwardly show worry.  Having these studies surely helps me now to know the ego’s way is not better for anyone.

Volumes can, and have been, written about these two phenomena.  The scientific studies validate what I personally saw before my very eyes and also assuaged my ego.  These are unquestionably invaluable and useful points to have gotten from a traumatic event.

Don has since told me that he really picked up on the strength, love, and joy I emitted and that it gave him hope.  Nice to have that personal validation, as well.

Postscript: Please know, if someone doesn’t improve physically, it does not mean it is our fault or because we weren’t “upbeat” enough.  Everyone has their own free will.  We cannot force someone to heal.  We merely offer the help and it is their choice what to do with it and there are countless factors that go into that personal decision.

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