Severe stress – can that which does not kill us really make us stronger?

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‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger’, is perhaps existential philosopher Nietzsche’s most famous quote about man’s innate resilience.  A Sunday Times article about research on post traumatic stress (15th April 2012) describes how people suffering from a trauma can react in two ways; let it define their lives, or make it a turning point – the first day of the rest of their lives.

‘Tension is who you think you should be.  Relaxation is who you are’

Chinese Proverb

The article, mostly based on a new book, ‘What doesn’t kill us’, by Stephen Joseph, defines the common experience of those suffering trauma, either from disasters or personal circumstances such as divorce or bullying, as ‘someone who feels their world view has been taken apart’.

Joseph’s original work was based on experiences of trauma by the survivors of the 1987 Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in which 193 died.  Three years after the event, while about half said life had changed for the worse, surprisingly a similar number said it had changed for the better.  They had seen it as a turning point, and many had gone on to change careers to something they considered more fulfilling and more in line with their personal values.

And even when traumatic events have shattered bodies, as was the case for Michael Paterson when a roadside bomb robbed him of his arms and legs, people seem to be able to reframe context to see opportunity.  (He was a soldier with 2 GCEs and now has two doctorates, an OBE, a wife and four children, now working as a clinical psychologist).

Joseph is quite scathing about the way so-called post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is currently treated, saying that ‘the therapy itself is part of the problem’.  (See my comments on therapy for PTSD in earlier blog on ‘Forgetting the pill’).  Instead, he asks whether we should act more as a counsellor, helping the individual to grow from the experience, after natural grieving for obvious loss, rather than acting like doctors trying to fix something that is broken.

Compared to these circumstances, stress at work might be considered trivial.  It is not, and still ruins lives, being the biggest cause of long term sickness.  But the same behaviours of reframing context, meaning and values can achieve similar results in turning difficult situations into learning and growth opportunities.  Our stress questionnaire will be up shortly, alongside tips for managing stress.  Our one day workshop on ‘Building Resilience and Managing Stress’ runs 12th September.


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