Turn on the news and you will be immediately flooded with images of pain, heartbreak, violence, loss, and fear. After watching for a short period of time, you might find yourself becoming tense, anxious, worried, and fearful, too. You see someone else in pain or fear and your empathic response engages.
A natural human occurrence, this phenomenon of “vicarious trauma” is well documented in the therapeutic field. The exciting news is that the opposite of this response is also true: Witnessing the resilience of others helps you become more resilient yourself. At its base, how to stay positive has to do with the choices you make and the actions you take. You can choose to cultivate an attitude of fear—or resilience.
As a trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder survivor, I know how challenging this choice can be. Having healed from mind-bending anxiety, I now give talks around the country about trauma, survival, recovery, and resilience. Recently, I shared my trauma story and a process for healing with an audience of trauma survivors. When my keynote talk was over, a woman in the audience approached me and said, “The most important thing about your speech was that it gives us all hope. I hear your story and I think, ‘That can happen for me.’”
That’s “vicarious resilience” at its best, and it’s something any of us can attain.
How to stay positive by borrowing hope
You’re not an optimism-making machine. In fact, your inbred negativity bias can make it incredibly difficult to look on the bright side. In those moments when you most need hope but can’t seem to muster it, research suggests that looking at the resilient example of others can help stimulate resilience in you.
This process of vicarious resilience was examined in-depth in a study published in Family Process. Working with a group of clinicians who served victims and the families of victims who suffered such terrible experiences as kidnapping, torture, and violent assaults in Bogotá, Columbia, researchers studied the clinicians’ comprehension of and views on the ways clients’ resilience affected them. What they discovered was that those working with and observing the resilient transformation of victims experienced their own personal surge of resilience. In the published account researchers observed, “We noticed that among the psychotherapists working with torture survivors, some made specific reference to the inspiration and strength they drew from working with clients whom they sometimes described as ‘heroes.’”
Notably, the clinicians recognized that witnessing the resilience of their clients affected their own attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. Far outside the boundaries of the therapeutic session, clinicians were experiencing changes in the way they perceived themselves, their personal relationships, and the world at large. The most common themes of this transformation revolved around recognizing humans’ immense capacity to heal as well as reassessing their own personal problems. One clinician reflected, “I learned about how human beings have so many resources to face tragedy, the importance of spirituality, tolerance, and the ability to survive.”
7 powerful ways to increase your personal adaptability
As often as news coverage activates vicarious trauma, it also offers opportunities for vicarious resilience. In the May police shooting in Mississippi, camera crews interviewed the mother of Liquori Tate, the slain African-American rookie cop. Tears streaming down her face, Tate’s mother sent a message to the murderers saying, “I forgive you.” In the face of her tragedy, how could she access such a generous spirit?
It might be because she has internalized any of these vicarious resilience processes revealed from this research:
- Witness and reflect on human beings’ immense capacity to heal. Whether it’s the Mississippi murders, the Nepal earthquake, or the latest terrorist attack, there are always examples of humans transcending pain and loss and finding ways to carry on. Study them; acknowledge what they do (how, when, and in what way) to glean actionable ideas for your own life.
- Reassess the significance of your own problems. Trapped in the confines of your mind (and the intense magnification of your feelings), relatively manageable problems can loom large. Placing any problem in the context of others’ problems helps rescale how you feel about your situation and can lead to increased empowerment.
- Develop hope and commitment. Everyone has their own private wellspring of hope. Some find access through religion, relationships, spirituality, or volunteer work. Identify what makes you feel hopeful. Then commit to practicing ways to access and create a habit of hope.
- Define and share your personal and professional philosophies. When you articulate your point of view to others, two things happen. First, you definitively clarify it for yourself, which allows you new opportunities to embrace and embody it. Second, you have the opportunity to connect to like-minded individuals, a process that further affirms, supports, and expands your perspective.
- Articulate a framework for healing. Any recovery approach can limit healing to the confines of an ideology. But there are many ways to heal. Explore what makes you feel better, recognize what works and what doesn’t, and create a healing process and framework that allows you to engage in techniques that resonate with who you are and who you want to be.
- Develop tolerance to frustration. The more effective you are at managing situations, the more self-mastery you will feel. Toughening up your tolerance muscle, then, creates an internal space where self-esteem flourishes. Discovering ways to tolerate frustration not only reduces stress but can increase your creativity and flexibility in any situation.
- Developing the use of self. In the face of challenges, it’s easy to feel completely impotent. Make the effort to (1) recognize your gifts, strengths, skills, and unique capabilities, and (2) place them in the context of action. Remembering what you’re good at and how it can be used in a moment of stressful challenge helps activate a solution-oriented process that leads to resilience.
At the end of the vicarious resilience study, researchers made two conclusions that could also be applied to our personal lives. First, they determined that vicarious resilience provides a positive balance to the effects of trauma on those who witness the tragedy of others. Second, witnessing the resilience of others enhances personal skills related to reframing negative events and coping with emotional challenges. In the same way that vicarious trauma creates a system of disturbance from person to person, vicarious resilience can create a (shared) system of hope and optimism.
During my own trauma recovery, I implemented many of the elements of vicarious resilience listed above. My process naturally began by needing to feel less alone, so I started reading memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies of people who had overcome difficult circumstances. Then I branched out to films and music representing the same themes. Taking these types of consistent actions feeds the brain a string of images related to what we desire. This is where vicarious resilience can really expand its power: The brain learns through repetition. By continually engaging vicarious resilience practices, you can train your brain to develop strong resilience programming that ultimately brings more peace and calm to your life, and also allows you to be a model for how to stay positive, allowing others to borrow hope from you.