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After trauma, teaching hope

(CNN) — The number of young men and women from the U.S. Army who committed suicide last month was so devastatingly high that it set a dismal new record.

About two-thirds of the 32 dead were active-duty soldiers; the rest were reservists. And like all riptides of tragedy, news of the deaths of bright young people with lives of promise stretched out before them has thrown many off balance.

“People think of us in the Army as these super-beings in uniform. But they forget that we are a direct reflection of American society,” said Maj. Juanita Chang. “And everything you have going on in society — good and bad — you are going to have those in the Army, too. Like everyone else, we are black and brown and white. We are worried about the economy, politics and jobs crisis. And sometimes we have problems coping, like everyone else.

“People forget that, I think, but its important to remember that we live in stressful times.”

The human response to extreme stress and adversity is bell-shaped, according to Dr. Marty Seligman, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center at University of Pennsylvania.

On one end of the spectrum are those with a bad, long-lasting reaction or setback who will suffer from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and be at higher risk for suicide.

In the middle are the vast majority of people, who are mostly resilient. They go through a very hard time for a period but within months, they bounce back — by physical and psychological measures — to where they were before the crisis.

And on the other end, you have a number of people who will also suffer stress reactions just like the others, but who will emerge from the trauma much stronger. This is known as post-traumatic growth.

Decades of research has shown that those who recover and go on to thrive following trauma tend to be optimists — people who see setbacks and bad events as transient, temporary and changeable.

And as a whole, optimists do much better in terms of post-traumatic stress reaction than pessimists, who are more likely to get stuck in “learned helplessness” — a vicious loop of passivity and negative thought patterns following an initial failure.

“I have found that optimists never really become helpless,” says Seligman.

With these findings in mind, researchers set out to determine whether optimism and resilience are teachable to those who are not necessarily so inclined. The answer, as it turned out, was a resounding yes.


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