We’ve all heard Friedrich Nietszche’s famous saying, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” It’s something people have been saying for years to bolster courage and help bring levity to challenging times. Kelly Clarkson, most recently, has made this a popular mantra with her smash hit, Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You.)
In 2006, a woman named Karina Hollekim, daredevil, skier, and BASE jumper almost died. Her parachute malfunctioned during what should have been a very ordinary jump, and she plummeted to earth, severely breaking both legs. Her right leg experienced 21 open fractures, while her left leg was shattered into four pieces. Doctors told her that she would never walk again. Prior to her accident she lived to push the envelope, and was fearless in her pursuit of adventure. Understandably, she felt her life and identity were destroyed.
In addition to 14 surgeries over four months, she was plagued by infections, one so bad in fact that it caused a wound to burst. At one point doctors considered amputation, however, a wad of grass and gravel were discovered deep in her leg tissue, and immediately removed. She never had another infection again.
After Karina was released from the hospital four months after that fateful day, she was admitted to an inpatient rehabilitation facility to start the next stage of her healing process. Surrounded by amputees, paraplegics, and quadriplegics, and the stark reality of her future, Karina sank into depression. She was suffering a classic case of post-traumatic STRESS. These are the severe psychological and physical afflictions that can occur after a trauma. Over the next few weeks Karina became more despondent, lost and frustrated. She was not responding to any treatments.
That all changed on the day one of physical therapists handed her a pair of boxing gloves and told her to start punching, and she did. She hit the therapist with all the might she could muster. Karina had finally found a way to use her body — and that gave her hope. Karina made a choice after that day that would change her life forever – she threw herself into her rehabilitation – a process which was arduous and excruciating. It took Karina one year before she would make her first attempt at walking again.
Karina Hollekim, experienced a phenomenon called post-traumatic GROWTH. In the early 90’s psychologists, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, coined the term post-traumatic growth after conducting numerous surveys on hundreds of patients who had survived severe injuries or loss. Instead of feelings of depression, anxiety and stress, each patient displayed remarkable effects of renewed appreciation for their lives, a stronger connection to their spirituality, and overall inner-strength.
Post-traumatic growth refers to the positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. Simply put, it is the exact opposite of post-traumatic stress! Psychologists explain that this “growth” does not occur as a direct result of trauma, but rather it is the individual’s struggle with the new reality in the aftermath of trauma that is crucial in determining the extent to which post-traumatic growth occurs. It hinges on the re-evaluation of one’s core beliefs.
In the hours after my son Josh was born and diagnosed with Down Syndrome, I found myself obsessing on the thought that something bad was going to happen again. It is not typical of my personality to latch on to one idea and then obsess about it, but in this case, I did. There was one idea, and it played over, and over, and over again in my mind for months.
Josh is an absolute blessing in my life, but at that time, I was still dealing with the shock of the news – it had been totally out of left field, and it turned my world upside down. I kept obsessing over what was waiting for me around the corner. I kept asking myself, “What’s going to happen next?” I kept expecting to get struck by lightning or waiting for the other shoe to drop. To prove my point to my husband I went online and searched how many times somebody had been hit by lightning. Interestingly, and if you’re curious, I found an instance where the same person was struck three times. THREE TIMES! I kept proving my point over and over again, because I needed this obsession on some level.
I was unaware at the time, but it was easier for me to obsess about illogical fears and to be paralyzed by thoughts of things that would never happen than it was to focus on my real fear of, “Who will my son, Josh, become? What will life be like for him? How will he evolve? Will I ever love him like I love my other children?” (The truth is I don’t know what I will become, or how I will evolve, or how much my heart is capable of loving, so I stopped asking questions which I could not possibly answer.)
In the initial months after Josh’s birth, I went through several different stages of grief and ultimately acceptance. For a while, I felt really worried about life in general, about how anything can happen at any moment. I finally got to the place where I didn’t believe that it was a punishment. I didn’t believe that I deserved something bad. I saw him as a blessing and as a gift. Therefore, my reality followed that idea – that thought. If I had perceived it as a judgment or as something I deserved, or bought into the belief that “I’m bad and this is what happens to bad people”, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
I remember turning to my husband one day and saying, “This shouldn’t be happening to us. We live a conscious life. We are good people.” And he turned to me and said, “What does that have to do with anything?” In that moment, I became aware of a faulty core belief, I “knew” that leading a spiritual life meant nothing bad would ever happen. But at that moment I discovered I had to re-learn everything I thought I already understood. Everything that I had always tried to be strong about, gathering strength in my ability to not need anyone, and that when push came to shove I could do things on my own. I came to realize that it was just my ego, a defense mechanism that I created in my childhood. I began to recognize what my real purpose was, and I committed myself to fulfilling it.
In essence, I had to change my core beliefs. I had to redefine what I thought it meant to be the mother of a special needs child. I had to change my belief that this was somehow my fault and erase the guilt I had surrounding Josh’s diagnosis. Once you change limiting core beliefs, it’s like the world opens up for you. My feelings of gratitude and appreciation were so powerful. This experience and my response to it was completely transformational.
Tedeschi and Calhoun’s research reveals that some of the results viewed in people who have experienced post-traumatic growth include: greater appreciation of life; greater sense of personal strength; warmer, more intimate relationships; changed sense of priorities; spiritual development and recognition of new possibilities or paths for one’s life. In layman’s terms: something horrible happens to you and you become better for it once it is over.
Kabbalistically, it is believed and taught that “bad” things are opportunities for amazing growth. What we perceive as “bad” is really a gift cloaked in a highly unflattering disguise. Challenges, if we choose to see it this way, can help us grow, make us stronger and wiser, and essentially we become better for them. Part of our purpose for being in this world is to change, to constantly develop, and live a life filled with long term happiness. What makes having certainty so difficult is knowing that everything that happens to us is in our best interest.
There is a big difference between positive thinking and certainty. Positive thinking is when you really want something, or a specific outcome, and you push aside your doubts. Certainty is being in a mind space where doubt doesn’t even exist. It is a completely different level of consciousness. The truth is that it is not something that comes naturally to us, nor is it something we can simply desire and manifest. Lack of certainty has been ingrained into our thought process from the minute we came into this world. Our minds have been trained to see the restrictions of this world. For example, we doubt that certain diseases can ever be cured, or that certain situations will get better.
Kabbalists teach that not only do we need to have certainty in the bigger picture, but we must develop, grow and trust our certainty in ourselves. Just as we need to have certainty in the Creator’s ability to bring about change and blessings, we must also have that same certainty in our own ability and in the overall process.
In Karina’s case, despite the extent of her injuries, the tests and challenges that faced her in recovery, and some very dark moments, she has become a successful and sought-after motivational speaker, a published author, a more thoughtful and responsible friend and daughter, and Karina can walk again. She has more certainty in the decisions she makes and is appreciative for everything in her life. She even asserts that she is thankful that the accident happened in the first place.
In my case, because of Josh I have learned so much, grown beyond measure, and my marriage has evolved into something that I never could have imagined it to be. I have empathy and a desire to share and to help others in their process. I’ve grown as a wife, mother, teacher and friend in ways that were not possible before. I emerged from this challenge better, stronger and with more appreciation for all the blessings in my life.
In Kabbalah it is taught that before any great Light – successful transformation or miracle can be revealed; an awakening of great doubt will precede it. The kabbalists teach that this aspect of inspiration, certainty, and transformation comes directly from the place of doubt, stumbling, struggling and falling. Our greatest Light is revealed to us AFTER the darkest of places. When we are at our lowest point, when we have the most doubt in ourselves, and nothing seems possible, that is the moment when an opening is available for us. This opportunity will yield something far beyond our imaginings.
One does not have to experience something awful in order to reap such results. Jane McGonigal PhD, the inventor and co-founder of SuperBetter, did extensive research on the matter, while developing this game app. McGonigal discovered that we can have similar results to post-traumatic growth WITHOUT the trauma by building up our resilience; much like going to the gym on a daily basis to build up muscle, we can build up your resilience with daily challenges.
Resiliency refers to the idea of an individual’s tendency to cope with stress and adversity. This coping may result in the individual “bouncing back” to a previous state of normal functioning, or simply not showing negative effects in the face of stress.
There are 4 kinds of resilience:
And there are various ways to work on each of the resilience, and the effects are almost immediate.
Start developing your resilience today. Pair it with practicing daily gratitude, and you could be well on your way to no-trauma growth!
- Emotional: Focus on the positive
- Social: Stay connected with loved ones. Text, call, email. Invest your time in people, make new friends, and care for those in your life.
- Physical: Move! Go for a walk around the block. Take in the change of season. A little Vitamin D will do you good.
- Mental: Learn something new. Explore new interests. Meditate – quiet your mind, and tap into your intuition.
THOUGHT INTO ACTION:
Challenge yourself to develop your resiliencies in the four areas of emotional, social, physical and mental. Share the ways you “exercise” your resiliency in the comments.