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Do We Grow From Tragedy?

It seems that every year around the holidays, numerous stories appear in the media of people skirting death or overcoming tragedy. These are certainly stories that need to be told. According to a recent post by psychology professors Eranda Jayawickreme of Wake Forest University and Frank Infurna of Arizona State University, they also fit a narrative to which people tend to subscribe. Writing for The Conversation, the psychologists point out that we tend to narrate our lives in terms of the challenges we have confronted and the setbacks we have overcome. We are attracted by the idea that there might be a silver lining to tragedy — that from tragic experience, we can learn to find a newfound appreciation for life. This also fits in with the biblical theme of redemption. Psychologists have come to describe this phenomenon as “post-traumatic growth.”

The two authors point out that research to date on the topic reveals some points of concern. For example, most research on post-traumatic growth asks people to estimate how much they have changed because of their trauma. Yet it has been shown that people are not particularly good at accurately remembering what they were like before a traumatic event. “Telling others that you’ve grown might actually be a way to cope with the pain you’re still experiencing,” they write. Also, the questions typically used by trauma researchers tend to ask only about positive changes.

Other studies examining traumatic growth have found no association between how much people believed they had changed following a traumatic experience compared with how much they had actually changed over time. The studies go on to say that those who reported that they had experienced the most personal growth after a tragedy were more likely to still experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Moving on from a tragedy is not easy, and for many, the pain may never fully go away. I think of my brother Wieland, killed in action in Vietnam, and the loss that I still feel.

This is not to say that people don’t grow from such adversity. Jayawickreme and Infurna point out how it is true that people can “become stronger, improve the quality of their relationships and increase their self-esteem. But it probably doesn’t happen nearly as often as most people and some researchers believe.”

When we see these stories of overcoming tragedy, I often wonder if they may be setting us up for false expectations, or even a feeling that there may be something wrong with those of us who are still struggling after a tragedy. For many people, just getting back to where they were before the trauma may be an ambitious enough goal.

They also tell us that no matter how well we think folks we know who are suffering a tragic loss may be doing, they continue to need the support of their families, friends and communities long after a traumatic event.

Another story we are likely to read during this holiday season will say something to the effect that suicides increase during this time of year. These stories commonly appear despite the reports that state there is no clear increase in rates or intensity of depression or suicide around the holidays.

According to HowStuffWorks, a large study of suicides in the U.S. suggests that certain holidays — such as New Year’s Day, Labor Day and the Fourth of July — “were associated with a low risk of suicide just before the holiday and a high risk afterward.” The American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide tracks rates of suicide in the U.S. and shows that suicide rates are highest in spring with a peak in April; they are generally below average during the winter.

One of the primary buffers of stress and depression is social identity. The holidays tend to maximize social connection for most people. As a result, suicide rates are generally lower. Hot weather tends to be associated with higher suicide rates. Suicide is also more common in the early part of the week (Monday to Thursday). This is another example of how suicide risk could be related to social interaction.

While the origin of the myth that suicide increases during the holiday season is unclear, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 2010 study found that approximately 50% of the articles on suicide published in the U.S. during the 2009 holiday season perpetuated the myth that rates are highest at this time.

What this annual flurry of misleading news stories says is that there needs to be a better effort to get the facts out there, and there needs to be accurate information on prevention and factors that do contribute to suicide. It is also possible that being in the holiday spirit makes us more vigilant to notice the signs in individuals that lead to suicidal behavior. During this time of year, the best way to help someone at risk is to include them in your holiday festivities — and to do so without judgment or criticism.

The holidays present a dizzying array of demands and stress. If you feel lonely or isolated, the experts at the Mayo Clinic suggest you seek out community, religious or other social events to attend. Here you can find those who can provide support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others is also a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships during the holidays. Friends and family can be the gift that keeps giving.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.