The aftermath of traumatic events like the wildfires in the Southwest and Mountain States as well as flooding in places like Colorado – where 24 counties are still affected, Colorado United – continues to have long term effects on families and business.
These effects certainly include a toll on health and wellbeing. In the face of a recent Harvard Study which found that stress is related to 60-90% of all visits to the medical doctor, how do you reclaim your health and wellbeing, especially when you are dealing with stress which isn’t caused by something you created?
A few interesting questions come to mind:
What are ways we can deal with the stress caused by traumatic events?
Are stress and anxiety something that could have positive results?
In a recent TED Talk given by Dr. Lissa Rankin, Dr. Rankin found in her medical practice that stress inhibits health. She found that the patients she was caring for tended to carry their stress like a “badge of honor” instead of something to be overcome. She observed, “the body is equipped with self-repair mechanisms and stress directly inhibits healing.”
In another TED Talk PhD health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, Kelly McGonigal, says, “When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. When you choose to connect with others under stress, you create resilience.”
Additional insights into the role stress and responses to it can play in our health are also found in a recent study which finds that one’s motive relates to whether stress is harmful. A study conducted by Michael Poulin and his colleagues suggests that when engaged in helping others, stress may not have an adverse affect on your health. On the other side, if one is not engaged in helping others, stress may have negative consequences. And according to research by Abiola Keller and others at the University of Wisconsin, if one doesn’t believe that stress is harmful, then it’s not.
In some of the most advanced work being done on treating people with man-made trauma – i.e. working with veterans – interesting insights into the role meditation and prayer can play are more and more common.
A pilot study at the University of Michigan VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, shows that mindfulness therapies may help veterans with combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. And, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD sees promise in this, saying that mindfulness practices can address problems such as stress, chronic pain and negative thinking patterns.
Prayer is a common way many people choose when addressing traumatic events. Recently, I interviewed a colleague of mine, Shannon Horst, who shared insights into how her family used prayer and a spiritual foundation to successfully deal with the trauma of a house fire that resulted in the loss of all their possessions.
After moving one summer to a new part of the country and building a new home, just before the beginning of the school year the family’s house and nearby new barn accidentally caught on fire and burned to the ground.
Interestingly, Shannon recalls her older siblings (who were not at home when the fire took place) were actually relieved when her parents told them they had lost everything in a fire. They said that from the look on her parents’ faces they assumed either someone had died or her parents were getting a divorce. This response put into perspective some of the fear and anxiety her parents were dealing with, and helped them realize that although the family had lost all their material possessions, everyone was alive and safe.
Shannon explained that as the family rebuilt there were two ideas they thought and prayed about: “Whatever traumatic things had happened, we could expect God’s goodness to bless us” Shannon said, and “by focusing on what you have and expecting good, you can move forward.”
During the following months, as the stress of tight quarters, replacing basic possessions, and concern over insufficient insurance built up, what they found was trusting in goodness helped them find healing. Not only did the family weather the trauma, but Shannon says they came out stronger and more unified. For example, one deeply strained relationship between her dad and a sibling was repaired as the family prayed and worked together to move forward.
“We learned that our relationships, harmony and unity were more important than any of the material possessions we owned,” Shannon says. Forty years later, that same closeness remains for the entire family.
Shannon’s advice for those dealing with traumatic loss and disruption:
1. Surround yourself with people who are forward thinking and positive, who have an uplifted – spiritual – approach to life;
2. Be grateful. Start and end with gratitude. Recognize what’s really valuable – people and relationships, not material stuff;
3. Spend less time talking about the tragedy. Analyzing doesn’t move you forward in your thinking, especially when there is no explanation why the event happened. Focusing on God’s goodness leaves little room for dwelling on the tragedy.
This final suggestion is reminiscent of a quote from St. Paul who affirms “that neither death nor life… neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God…” Romans 8.
Paul is speaking to those facing difficult obstacles and assuring them that there is no challenge too difficult or able to create separation from love (compassion, selflessness, help, etc.) This is the type of prayer Shannon’s family relied on to successfully deal with the effects of the fire and its aftermath. And Paul’s assurance might be a good way to inspire each one of us to apply these solutions to the stressful situations we find ourselves in.
Obviously the stress of a traumatic event ultimately has to be overcome. Maybe it’s through some combination of engaging in Soul Medicine, working unselfishly for others, or meditation. In my experience and Shannon’s, relying on the sense that God’s love is an eternal and ever-present help, has been another effective way to find healing.
David Price writes on the connection between health, thinking and spirituality. He is also the media and legislative representative for Christian Science in Colorado.