Why can some people turn trauma into growth and some just can’t? Some people seem like that can thrive even after the most horrible experiences. How was Jaycee Dugard able to talk on television and write a book about her 18 year abduction by a sick sex offender and talk about hope and growth while some well trained soldiers regress into self-medicated non-productive lives?
In chapter 8 Seligman talks about his efforts to turn around the military culture from a confused coping with PTSD to a well constructed plan for converting the built in stress of working for a killing machine into a source of personal strength. His plan is awesome, and can save countless lives both physically and emotionally. But is seems to me as a useful paradigm only for the military.
Of course, there are other stressors that approximate the trauma that one might encounter in the army, but it is only in the military that a person willingly puts him or herself in a situation where traumatic stress is expected. As Seligman notes in the beginning of the chapter, a catastrophic flood can be just as psychologically damaging as a battlefield. And there is a lot to be learned from studying how people cope with such disasters. But it seems almost impossible to take lessons about building resilience in the military and apply them to civilian life. Ordinary people should not have to train themselves to prepare for trauma. While Jaycee Dugard has what it takes to survive hell, why would her family have taken special steps to give it to her at age 10?
The question that begins to get an answer in this chapter is what is it that is what it takes to flourish in the face of traumatic experiences? And then, how can it be imparted to people who can expect to experience trauma (ie: soldiers.) I would have been happier if Seligman had addressed the clinically prevalent problem of how to turn past trauma into growth. He doesn’t. This is really about increasing resilience. As the three star general said to the brigadier general at the end of a meeting with Seligman: “General Cornum,” said General Casey, ending the meeting, “you are to make resilience training happen for the whole army. Move out.” (p.165, italics mine.)
For people who are familiar with Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the basis of Seligman’s system will be easily recognized. If you know how to perceive and think about a situation you are less likely to get bent out of shape. Of course, that tidbit of a truism can be found in most religions from Judaism to Buddhism, from Native American Spirituality to Hinduism. REBT and, now Seligman, operationalize that imperative for the modern sensibilities. The goal is, in Seligman’s terms, how to fight catastrophic thought in real time.
The trick is (again, not really new in psychology) is to take an objective realistic view of whatever it is that you are facing (gathering evidence), take that perception and use an optimistic lens, and then take a long term perspective (“don’t sweat the small stuff, and it is all small stuff”. )
How does he do it? First step is to get the trainees to begin to focus on the positive in their lives. This is done with the standard positive psychology favorite of a gratitude journal. Second step is for each trainee to identify his or her own personal strengths. Identification is not enough though. They go through exercises to illustrate and practice putting those strengths to practical use. The third step builds strong relationships both professionally and in each participants private life. This includes how to respond to others both actively and constructively, and a five-step model of assertive communication. The five step model includes the following steps (p.174):
- Identify and work to understand the situation.
- Describe the situation objectively and accurately.
- Express concerns.
- Ask the other person for his/her perspective and work toward an acceptable change.
- List the benefits that will follow when the change is implemented.
Seligman relates his success with this program in the army. I do not doubt it. Also, I believe that each of these skills are helpful to every person who can learn them and put them into practice. I have questions concerning the breadth of applicability. They are great skills for anybody to use when they are in a potentially traumatizing situation. They might be helpful for people who have passed through trauma. But I think that they have limited use for people in their struggles to reverse the effects of trauma.