One morning almost five years ago, a disgruntled former employee tried to kill me with a shotgun as I walked out of my local deli. The buckshot pellets from the blast pierced my right shoulder and chest; blood gushed from the wound. I learned later that the shot would have killed me had it landed a few inches to the left.
I had studied trauma victims for decades to understand resilience and find new treatments for mood and anxiety disorders like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Now I was the trauma victim. Lying in the intensive care unit of my own hospital, I struggled to find my own resilience. I would have to take my own medicine by applying what I call The Resilience Prescription to my personal trauma.
People who bounce back from traumatic events generally do so with an active approach to recovery, even creating a sense of mission that fuels a positive attitude. So I set a goal. I was scheduled to deliver a speech approximately two weeks after the shooting to the new medical students at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where I am dean, at our White Coat Ceremony, a momentous event where students receive their white doctor coats. I pledged to myself that I would return to school and deliver the speech. That mission, and a determination to move forward with the support of my family and friends, enabled me to deliver the white coat address. I think it was the best speech I have ever given. Accomplishing that goal fueled and accelerated my recovery.
The world is reeling from the global trauma of Covid-19, and people in every country are trying to emerge and recover from this pandemic. It won’t be easy, especially for those who have lost loved ones; Black, Latinx, and low-income communities disproportionately devastated by the pandemic; and individuals who continue to suffer long-term physical symptoms of Covid-19.
There is no magic formula for bouncing back. Full recovery, by its very nature, is slow and gradual. And every person is different. But humans have a remarkable capacity for resilience.
For anyone trying to recover from the trauma of Covid-19, goal setting can be an effective strategy by shifting the focus away from the trauma toward the future and an achievable mission. For some, the goal may be mustering the strength to return to the office or to reopen a shuttered business. For others, it may be something more personal, like gaining a new appreciation for time spent with family; getting in better shape and losing those pandemic pounds; or being more charitable by volunteering every week in the local food pantry or a school, an ideal plan since altruism is strongly tied to resilience.
As individuals, we can’t control the pandemic. But we can control our reactions to it. Working to maintain a positive attitude, find a resilient role model, and nurture a supportive network of friends and family — all elements of The Resilience Prescription — are key steps in the process of recovery and resilience.
Bad things happen to good people: Loved ones die. Relationships fail. Careers suffer setbacks. No one goes unscathed. And now we have the shared trauma of a pandemic, an experience that will always be a part of us.
Yet personal growth can come from this. In different ways, large and small, many of us have been part of the Covid-19 resistance: Frontline health care workers who risked their own lives to save the lives of others. Grocery clerks, factory workers, public service employees, and others who kept their cities running. Caregivers who nursed ill family members. Those who shopped for their families and neighbors. And those who diligently kept wearing their masks.
Each of us will remember our personal battles against the pandemic and, if we look back with a sense of pride, this can become part of the healing process.
The great novelist Ernest Hemingway, who was severely injured in World War I, recognized the power of resilience when he wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Anyone who has had a brush with death, as I did, or who has suffered deep trauma can be resilient. If we can learn from it, incorporate it into who we are, and move forward with our life and aspirations, we can ultimately become stronger from the experience.
Dennis S. Charney is a psychiatrist, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, president for academic affairs for the Mount Sinai Health System, and co-author, with Steven M. Southwick, of “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
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