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Oslo woman exemplifies new resiliency research

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As I continue to read about the aftermath of the tragedies in Norway, I can’t help but wonder how people directly affected by the traumas – and all Norwegians – will be able to avoid unwanted emotional fallout from the events.

However, one of the things that is comforting to me is that a growing body of research is finding that people tend to be naturally resilient in the face of loss and trauma. Grief and loss researcher George Bonanno, a professor of psychology at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, writes in his book, The Other Side of Sadness, about the high levels of resilience among people in three extremely traumatic events: the bombing of London in World War II, the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, and the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center towers in 2001.

Surprisingly, the incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among New Yorkers following the collapse of the twin towers was quite low and almost non-existent six months later. The people of London, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki during WWII also demonstrated a high amount of resilience.

So, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised then, when I read this headline on msnbc.com today: “Oslo bomb victim is back at work after surviving spike through head.” It sounded so crazy I thought it must have originated from a sensational tabloid or something. But no. When I clicked on the link, there she was in living color outside the bombed office building in Oslo, sitting on the ground talking to medical workers with a spike through her head. Somehow, the large wooden splinter had entered Line Nersnaes’ chin, missed her brain and large arteries, and exited through the top of her head.

A little lower on the page was a picture of her looking very calm, a bandage around her head. Her biggest concern? She had been working on a paper that dealt with domestic violence and she was determined to get back to it. The original deadline was August 10th, but in spite of having no desk or computer, she promises the reader that she’ll have it done before Christmas.

Some will argue that she is still in shock or denial. This may be true or it could just be that Line Nersnaes is one of the many people who has natural resiliency and is calling upon it in this very difficult time.

The bottom line? If you are one of those people who do well in crises or seem to bounce back when others are still floundering, try not to think that you aren’t handling the situation “right.” You are probably just one of the many Line Nersnaes of the world.

And, if you’re like me and have been worrying about the people of Norway, it looks like most of them will be okay in the long run. But let’s still keep them in our thoughts . . .

I’ll explore the idea of “right” reactions to trauma and loss more in my next post.

Takeaway points: Although it has long been held that the “normal” reaction to trauma will include symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, new research is pointing to the fact that, actually, most people are quite resilient in the face of adversity.

Have you ever been more resilient than you thought you would be when something tragic has happened?

Photo courtesy of Beverly & Pack, Flickr Creative Commons


One Comment

  1. Pratik says:

    My friend Julie on FB sugesetgd I look at your website. I don’t often look at myself as a very empowered person but your suggestion here: remind yourself of all you’ve done, experienced, and overcome made me stop and think about all the adversity I have overcome; all the things I have done in my life and the many experiences I have had. When I do this with the right attitude, I can see that those things that one generally overlooks are my personal point of strength. By not giving in or giving up on my own emotional survival I believe I have, hidden inside me, the tools to continue ( more than is required) to do what I have left to accomplish. I simply need to learn to use it.

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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.