The flip side of PTSD is POSITIVE

The heading is not a joke. The U.S. Army has introduced a new psychological approach to training and to therapy for soldiers suffering with PSTD. The article is six pages long but worth every word of reading. I have reposted page 4, which is the middle of the article, so when you click on the link go to page one and read through the entire amazing story. BONNIE

Post-Traumatic Stress’s Surprisingly Positive Flip Side

Published: March 22, 2012
(Page 4 of 6)

A week into the training course at the Sheraton in Philadelphia, the soldiers were divided into groups for role-playing exercises to help develop techniques for optimistic thinking. I sat at a round table in a small basement meeting room with eight soldiers who had been given the following situation: You are the sergeant in charge of a unit, and a soldier shows up late for early-morning formation twice in a row. The group had to come up with a worst-case scenario, a best case-scenario and what was most likely to happen.

Sitting at the table was Sgt. First Class Chris Tweedell. An Oliver Stone vision of a sergeant — towering, broad and topped with a pale shaved head — Tweedell is blessed with a deep, powerful voice. Tweedell and the other sergeants were supposed to be learning how to train others to avoid catastrophic thinking. But trying to dream up optimistic outcomes for the hypothetical situation was exasperating him. “That is why I hate this stuff,” he said, dropping his head in his hands. Seligman’s work suggests that if people take the time to come up with these three possible outcomes, it allows them to assess their reaction to a situation more clearly. That does not mean that every outcome is going to be positive — in many cases, in war especially, something bad is going to happen.

Tweedell served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and completed two tours in Afghanistan. When he returned from his first deployment, his home was broken into. He got divorced. He remarried, but coming home from tours continues to be hard. “There are highs and lows, and you don’t know if it is your own mood or sleep deprivation or road rage,” he says. “I’ve had a few episodes of P.T.S.D.” Optimistic possibilities were not coming to him easily. (Tweedell’s group eventually came up with this best-case ending: the soldier would get mentoring. The more realistic outcome: he would be put on an unpleasant work detail.)

Some studies show that optimism is linked to increased resilience and to the likelihood of psychological growth. But it’s not clear what comes first — does optimism lead to resilience or the other way around, or are both true? Seligman’s theory is that if soldiers can be taught to approach a situation as General Cornum did naturally — with gratitude for being alive rather than distress at being taken prisoner — then they might learn to become resilient, too. A core principle of the program is seeing an event as neutral, neither bad nor good, and focusing instead on your reaction to the event. One exercise many soldiers told me they like suggests that they “hunt the good stuff” by writing down three good things that happened during the day before they go to sleep each night.

A week into the training, I met with Tweedell for a second time. Despite his groaning over the exercise, he was excited about the goals of Seligman’s course. “This is a holistic view of a total soldier: mind, body, soul — a supersoldier,” he told me. “Someone has finally understood that we need to be mentally tough.” He told me that the course was making him think about how he communicates with peers, not to mention his preteen stepdaughter. Seligman encourages soldiers to communicate in what he calls an active, constructive way — drawing out others, encouraging detailed discussions of positive events. Tweedell was realizing that he often avoids conversation with his stepdaughter because he assumes she does not want to talk to him. “How often do I ask her what good things happened to her today?” he said. He told me that as a soldier, he often communicates passively as well. “Maybe this is why I have the relationships that I have at home at and at work,” he said.

It’s not a big leap to imagine that Seligman’s tools could improve family or work communication. But can positive thinking really protect against the harsh experiences of war? Soldiers’ experiences are unique. They develop intense bonds with one another, and all too often they see those closest to them die. Relentless boredom is punctuated by moments of pure terror. Young men and women who have little experience with mortality are suddenly confronted with gruesome scenes of death. Some grapple for years with the emotional complexities of killing and watching people die. “These programs were designed to make people happier and healthier,” says George Bonanno, a professor at Columbia University who studies trauma and resilience. “That is not the same thing as inoculating people for serious urinate-in-your-clothing type stress — once-in-a-lifetime stress.”

Jim Rendon is a freelance writer in New York. He is working on a book about the medical-marijuana industry.

Editor: Vera Titunik


About Bonnie Toews and John Christiansen

Bonnie's Blog Posts invite our readers and free spirits everywhere to share life's adventures with us. I talk about writing my novels, reading books, chatting with other writers and John's and my journeys around the world. We welcome your anecdotes to our experiences and discussions.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan vets, Canadian Armed Forces, caregivers, federal government, Homecoming Vets, mental illness, post traumatic stress disorder, veterans' affairs, veterans' assistance programs, VRAB. Bookmark the permalink.

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