There has been a lot of chatter lately about the benefits of struggle.
The recent New York Times bestseller " Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy," by Sheryl Sandberg and Dr. Adam Grant, gives hope of creating resilience in the face of adversity. Retired Marine Corps. Gen. Jim Mattis' speech on the topic in 2014, in which the future defense secretary cited the benefits of trauma in the form of "something called 'posttraumatic growth,' " went viral — at least among veterans. Even National Public Radio recently aired segments discussing research that suggests post-traumatic stress disorder can can lead from struggle to growth.
But underlying all this chatter are changes in two areas — our image of veterans and broadening approaches to treatment of PTSD.
Our national view of veterans tends toward the extremes of either pity or idolization. In the vast majority of veterans, these stereotypes are both inaccurate and unfounded. Most veterans are neither "broken," nor are they "war heroes," though they exhibit actions we consider heroic.
Our definition of a "hero" is any person who has struggled with adversity yet develops ways to live as a positive force in their families and their communities. This definition not only expands the group to include the common citizen, it's also a definition that many who are labeled "heroes" would be comfortable with. In the aftermath of trauma, the process of posttraumatic growth, or PTG, leads to this kind of heroic living.
Our current approaches to trauma treatment underestimate the possibilities for this heroic living because they do not focus on growth. The medical approach to PTSD largely attacks symptoms caused by traumatic events with pharmaceuticals and exposure-based psychotherapy. In this approach, the goal is to lessen symptoms enough to allow people to function more comfortably.
Our belief is that growth should be the focus, so that veterans and other trauma survivors can see the great value they bring to those around them, as they have learned through their adversity important lessons about living well.
In 2015, researchers from Yale University published a longitudinal study of 1,838 military veterans offered some impressive indicators of PTG. Based on self-reporting over the two-year study, 59.4 percent of veterans surveyed reported at least moderate levels of PTG. Interestingly, the higher the instances of trauma the greater the potential level of growth. Altruism, active lifestyles, and reading were all linked to well-being, happiness, health and positive relationships with others.
There is a logical question that arises from this study and others in recent years that have focused on PTG: Can we train veterans — and, by extension, civilians — in practices which promote and facilitate growth?
A team of combat veterans, wellness professionals and clinical scientists are seeking to answer that question at Boulder Crest Retreat in Bluemont, Virginia. The effort is to shift the focus from traumatic events that lead to PTSD to understanding how to facilitate PTG in the aftermath of those events. PTG includes new possibilities, increased appreciation of life, increased connections to one's faith, stronger and renewed relationships, and a greater sense of personal strength.
The 18-month training program utilizes ancient practices that have enabled warriors to be successful in combat and at home when they return. It also utilizes innovative interventions and meditative techniques within a challenging and supportive environment during a week at Boulder Crest, together with a long-term continuation through video connections.
An ongoing study of this program is yielding very promising results, not only in terms of symptom reduction, but changes in the ways veteran participants are living in their families and communities that indicate PTG.
The conversation being created by Sandberg, Mattis and others is revealing an important shift in thinking. We are beginning to see our veterans not in terms of their past experiences, but by recognizing their future heroic possibilities. We are beginning to see the struggles that permeate our lives not as impediments to life, but opportunities for growth.
Because this positive direction will have profound benefits for our nation, we need to keep up the chatter to accelerate the change.