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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Psychology of Joy

I recently stumbled across some psychology terms that made a lot of sense for Keys to Joy.   These are concepts that I have learned through my own trial, error and personal experimentation. I love that the realizations that I pieced together on my own, from my own life, have been scientifically studied and “proven”.  It is nice to have that objective confirmation.  It also motivates me to keep on chugging!

These concepts are in relation to a field of psychology called positive psychology in which Dr. Martin Seligman is a pioneer.  He studied the concepts of Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization in terms of Learned Optimism (which is also the title of his book).  Pessimists and optimists differ in the way they handle these 3 P’s.

If you are interested, check out his work in depth.  But in a nutshell and in my words, I’ve summarized the 3 P’s as such.  When faced with a challenge or unwanted circumstance, to be optimistic -or joyful- we must tell ourselves the following:

Permanence:  This is not permanent.  In other words, this too shall pass.

Pervasiveness:  This need not affect all areas of our lives.  Just because this one thing is not going as we want it, we are still happy in other areas of our lives.

Personalization:  This is not because we are unworthy or bad.

Awareness of these 3 P’s have saved me many times from falling into a terrible funk.  In retrospect, and possibly more importantly, I now clearly see that the times I did fall into funks were usually a result of believing it was an everlasting situation; letting it infringe upon the other areas of my life that had no relevance to that particular situation; and believing that my unworthiness, being not good enough, somehow was responsible for its occurrence. The 3 P’s definitely led me to the Pits!

An example of Permanence was, well, pretty much every time I got down I never could see the end of the tunnel.  My ego always had me thinking the bad stuff was forever.

An example of Pervasiveness was a time when I had a series of crappy work situations.  I completely lost perspective and I actually remember thinking these exact words:  ‘I can’t enjoy fall this year.’  My work life was so bad (or so I imagined), that I thought I did not have the right to find joy at all.  Even in nature and the weather!

Looking back, I can see how this doesn’t even make sense.  However, when I add the Personalization part, I can understand how this idea came to be.  When I believed the bad work situation was a result of my lack of worth or incompetence, then of course, how could I allow myself to find any joy when I believed I lacked value as a person.

The 3 P’s really work together and feed off of each other.  So, how do we keep the feeding frenzy in check?

First, realize this is the ego at work.  Permanence: The ego is not aware that everything changes and nothing is permanent.  The ego does not know about the soul and how Life goes on.  Pervasiveness: The little ego cannot get perspective to see that one thing does not affect everything. It can only see from its limited view.  Personalization:  The ego thinks everything is about ourselves and how great, or not great, we did.

The next step is pretty simple.  When faced with a negative or challenging situation, remind ourselves the crap isn’t forever.  Even if the situation does not change, the bad feeling will.  We can still enjoy other things in life amidst the unwanted circumstance.  And most importantly, remind ourselves that we are worthy and have value no matter what situation or circumstance confronts us (increasing self-worth posts).

Have the 3 P’s worked against you?  Realizing how can help you to not do it when the next challenge or negative circumstance arises.