What Doesn’t Kill You… Surviving Disasters May Stimulate Personal Growth
Surviving Disasters May Stimulate Personal Growth
Remember the old saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? Researchers are finding out that this may actually be true.
On May 22, 2011, a catastrophic tornado, rated EF-5 on the Enhanced Fujita tornado intensity scale, blasted into Joplin, Mo. After it touched down, it stayed on the ground for approximately 38 minutes and traveled 22.1 miles. While it was there, its winds caused 161 deaths, approximately 1,150 injuries and damage to 553 business structures and nearly 7,500 residential structures, over 3,000 of which suffered critical damage or were completely destroyed. Financial losses were estimated at the time at $3 billion.
It was the deadliest single tornado on record in the United States.
Not surprisingly, the aftermath of such a disaster – just as others are now seeing in parallel in post-hurricane Maria Puerto Rico – comes with great post-traumatic stress among the survivors.
Now, based on just-published studies conducted by the Disaster and Community Crisis Center at the University of Missouri (MU), there is apparently one bright light that has been discovered amid all that suffering. The researchers found that those survivors also have the potential to experience positive personal growth and change as they work through the posttraumatic stress.
As Jennifer First, a doctoral candidate in the MU School of Social Work and disaster mental health program manager with the Disaster and Community Crisis Center, said, “When disasters occur, mental health professionals – community organizers, social workers, case managers and counselors – often work in partnership with local, state and federal organizations to respond.” Many of those who come to help often expect to see – and therefore sometimes only do see – the downside of the tragedies. First added: “It is important that these professionals understand that the negative consequences of trauma can coexist with positive perceptions of growth. In fact, post-traumatic stress may drive a search for meaning following a disaster.”
Earlier studies had shown that factors such as how people relate to one another and their ability to appreciate life, flexibility in understanding future possibilities, personal strength and even perspective on spiritual change are all important in how they develop after major traumatic shocks of this kind.
To look at this further, in the Joplin case, researchers from MU, partnering with a Joplin community mental health partner, looked at all the above issues in a
sampling of 438 adult survivors from the Joplin tornado. To understand the survivors’ personal growth, the evaluation took place two and a half years after the catastrophe. The survivors were asked to comment about how they had been personally affected by the tornado, if and how they talked about the tornado with people they knew and about their specific posttraumatic stress symptoms.
Vicky Mieseler, chief administrative officer of the Ozark Center in Joplin, led the community mental health response to the tornado and was part of the team involved in the study. She pointed out, “We found that more communication between people who experienced the tornado and their families, friends and neighbors was related to more post-traumatic growth among survivors.” Among other things, this provided the important “takeaway” from this specific event: that “mental health providers can help foster growth by promoting connections and communication among survivors in long-term, post-disaster communities.”
Dr. Chance Eaton, a regular contributor to Trillions, who has an extensive background in the field of learning and organizational development, saw synergies between these findings and his own analyses of how people work together – both during a crisis and in their growth afterwards. After reading about the results of this study, he made the following observation:
“Our species is communal in nature; we have depended on one another for survival and support since the beginning. Though our day-to-day activities are dramatically different than our ancestors’, our need for one another continues to be expressed through our genetic code. We see proof of this human bond through our spiritual assemblies, cause-changed initiatives and celebrations of history and reunion. Never is our human bond more noticeable than in times of distress, such as natural disaster, death or dramatic change. Our need for one another is deep-seated, and as technological advances continue to isolate our species, we need to remember that we are fundamentally communal. We are all in this life together, and a better tomorrow requires a community-based species.”
In the end, no matter how difficult the crisis, the power of resilience in people seems to remain remarkably strong. The Joplin tornado may have been the ultimate test to date for just about anyone, but the survivors there appear to be making their own even more powerful comeback – after the fact.