• lynneeveratt

What the science of trauma can teach you about happiness

For our upcoming book club, my friends and I selected What Happened to You? a 300-page conversation between Oprah Winfrey and trauma specialist Dr. Bruce Perry. It’s one of those books that shifts your perspective so profoundly that you begin to see traces of its content everywhere. For example, this week I listened to a podcast interview with Dean Karnazes, an ultramarathoner famous for feats of unimaginable endurance such as running 135 miles across Death Valley in120-degree heat, racing through 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, and running a marathon to the South Pole (without snowshoes!). “I think there is salvation in suffering. There’s magic in misery,” he said. I wondered why somebody would glorify suffering and intentionally seek out misery in extremes of heat, cold, and exertion. There's nothing in the science of happiness that backs up Karnazes' belief in a better life through self-mortification, perhaps because it would be difficult to find research subjects willing to run 100 miles nonstop to prove such a painful hypothesis. Later in the interview, Dean shared a plausible reason for his passionate pursuit of torment: “I lost my favorite friend, my kid sister, on her 18th birthday.” For some people who have been traumatized, physical pain becomes a form of pleasure, a way to tap into the body’s internal system of mood enhancement—such as a runner’s high—to self-soothe. Where I live in Canada it’s a long Victoria Day weekend, the unofficial beginning of summer that typically involves a lot of self-soothing behavior. Queen Victoria, as if anticipating that the holiday celebrated in her name would become associated with the consumption of Canada’s favorite alcoholic beverage, said, “Give my people plenty of beer, good beer, and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them.” Drinking is a common yet ineffective coping strategy, a way to ease emotional pain in the moment and quell inner rebellion that can become problematic. Like Oprah and Dr. Perry, addiction expert Gabor Maté implores us to ask not, “Why the addiction?” but “Why the pain?” Maté wonders why physicians don’t hear the word “trauma” in medical school. The symptoms of trauma often manifest in the body, in diverse symptoms ranging from digestive difficulties to sleep disturbances. The body records emotional experiences, and the body can be used to heal. I don’t want to traumatize you any further with stories of trauma and its after effects, but as we emerge from the shared experience of Covid, I thought it would be helpful to give you three proven practices that have helped traumatized people recover. As Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, head of the Trauma Stewardship Institute, told Ed Yong of The Atlantic, “People put their heads down and do what they have to do, but suddenly, when there’s an opening, all these feelings come up.” You may discover that the aftermath of the pandemic, when mind and body begin to play back what you've been through, is more emotionally challenging than the pandemic itself. You may discover that you've been traumatized by your experience during the past 15 months. Here’s what you can do: 1. Get into rhythm. A hallmark of trauma is chaos, unpredictability, and a lack of control that overstimulates the most primitive non-verbal part of the brain. Activities with rhythm built into them such as dancing, drumming, walking, or knitting, can calm the mind and provide a predictability that's healing. “Walking is very regulating for me.” - Oprah’s favorite rhythmic activity is walking 2. Get moving. Before What Happened to You? there was The Body Keeps the Score, a book in which author, psychiatrist, and trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk reveals how trauma reshapes both body and brain. Bessel often prescribes physical activity for his patients who struggle with psychological trauma. For example, the person who as a child was surrounded by rage may learn to become physically frozen so as not to draw attention and invite retaliation. Expressive exercise such as kickboxing can help such people get in touch with their vitality and assert their right to move and take up space. Similarly, the person who was immobilized by multiple lockdowns and found refuge on the sofa can come back to life with activities that involve a breadth of movement such as racquet sports that also work to slowly and enjoyably welcome others back into their life. Which brings us to the most important trauma-recovery strategy... 3. Community. According to trauma expert Dr. Bruce Perry, “Connectedness is key to healing past trauma and buffering current stress.” Find your “church home,” adds Oprah who found healing from trauma in the communal embrace of her church. It doesn’t have to be faith-based: a church home can be found among people who volunteer for the same cause, share the same hobby, or are recovering from the same addiction. If there’s a message I took away from What Happened to You? aside from trauma is everywhere, it’s that most healing happens in community, and that your greatest sources of strength—and the gift you can give to others—can often be found in your most broken places. ***** I’ll be spending part of my holiday weekend self-soothing through binge watching “In Pursuit of Happiness” a free YouTube video program from The Atlantic featuring happiness stalwarts such as Arthur Brooks, Dr. Laurie Santos, the Dalai Lama and others who remind us that the ingredients for a happy life are not fame, fortune, and the pursuit of pleasure, but faith, family, friendship and meaningful work.

Links that recharge:

  • Burnout: Modern Affliction or Human Condition? The New Yorker

  • You Can Only Maintain So Many Close Friendships The Atlantic

  • 65% of execs think introverts are bad leaders. Here’s why that’s BS. The Hustle

  • How To Change Your Personality British Psychological Society Research Digest

  • What Introverts and Extroverts Can Learn From Each Other The Atlantic

May your day contain all the macronutrients of happiness, Lynne

(Cover image thanks to Noah Buscher, Unsplash)

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