THE BOTTOM LINE – The stress and trauma that I experience can either harm me or strengthen me, and which way it goes depends on the choices I make.
Think about someone you care about – someone you really want to help. Would you punch them, kick them, chase them, exhaust them with hard work, burden them, and yell at them? Of course not.
Except...What if your friend was an up-and-coming Mixed Martial Arts fighter and you were his coach? It seems pretty harsh, but this kind of regimen is how world champions are made. No pain, no gain.
In Week 1, we learned about six different gateways through which stress and trauma can enter our lives as well as the symptoms they generate. Last week, we learned about how these events can act as “roots” which produce painful and toxic “fruit” in our lives. We also began to explore the question of why an all-powerful, loving God would even allow such stress and trauma into our lives.
This week we’re going to dig deeper for some key answers to that question and learn how traumatic stress can actually end up benefitting us.
TWO RESPONSES TO STRESS: PTSD OR PTSG
When we are confronted with a difficult event – a “stressor” – there are two different ways we can respond.
The first type of response is called distress.
This usually happens when we perceive some sort of threat, and we have doubts about whether we can survive it. Our “fight, flight, or freeze” responses kick in automatically, and we will do whatever it takes to stay alive, sometimes involuntarily. Our objectives are simple – eliminate or escape the threat and don’t die.
God created these reactive pathways in us to help us survive life-threatening situations. But when a person gets stuck in this high-alert mode, it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Sure, our responses kept us alive, but unless we know how to turn them off, it becomes difficult to live fully over the long term. Anger, frustration, depression, and despair become our constant companions.
A second way we can respond to a difficult life stressor is called eustress.
Maybe this isn’t a word that is very familiar to you. The Latin prefix “Eu” means “good.” So we could call this “good” stress. This usually happens when we feel challenged, and even though our strength or endurance may be overmatched by the event confronting us, we make a choice to fight through it, overcome it, and end up being strengthened by it, win or lose. When you think about it, the only way a person can become stronger is through stress. If you want to increase a muscle’s size and strength, you have to put a load on it – stress it enough to cause micro-tears in the muscle fibers, which repair and rebuild stronger each time. If you want to become a doctor or a mechanic or a rocket scientist, you must be willing to experience hardship, long hours, setbacks, late nights of study, and hard work. That’s a lot of stress. But in the end, you achieve your goal and are equipped to do things you didn’t think possible, leading to even greater determination, strengthening, achievement, and optimism.
It doesn’t mean that you won’t experience any pain or suffering along the way, but the likelihood of triumph is greatly increased. Rather than post-traumatic stress disorder, we call this result post-traumatic stress growth.
THE POSITIVE SIDE OF STRESS
In August of 2017, two great fighters met in the ring. One was UFC Mixed Martial Arts World Champion Conor McGregor. The other was boxing World Champion Floyd Mayweather. It was decided that boxing would be the competitive mode. It was a tough night for Mayweather. Even though he was a superlative defensive boxer with a 49-0 record, he was hit 111 times during the 10-round bout. Most of us would spend weeks in the hospital after such punishment.
On the flip side, Mayweather tagged McGregor 170 times, winning the match by a TKO and claiming a $100 million payday. Floyd Mayweather didn’t consider Conor McGregor a threat – he considered him a challenge. And though he took a pretty good beating, he focused on his objective, trusted his training, fought back, and never backed down despite the pummeling he received.
Without stress, nothing of value gets accomplished. But whether the stressors you experience lead to disorder or growth depends on the choices you make – before, during, and after your traumatic experiences.
Granted, when life-threatening stress hits us, there are very few people who would immediately respond with, “Alright! A challenge! This is gonna be great!” These stressors will likely be met with fear, anxiety, horror, anger, and any number of immediate emotional responses that are part of the threat-reaction system God has built into us.
But after the threat has passed and we are once-again in control of our choices, this is when we must make decisions that will lead to post-traumatic stress growth. This potential for growth is the reason why our all-powerful, loving God allows adversity to exist in our lives. It all comes down to His desire to see us grow and become stronger and better equipped to help others around us. As the Bible says in James 1:2-4:
“Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
There can be purpose in our pain.
The Bible says that even Jesus – the Son of God – grew in this way. In Hebrews 5:8 it says that, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.”
Obviously, God the Father loved (and loves!) His Son. We can see from this that God can love you and still let you suffer. It’s important to grasp the fact that God doesn’t cause natural or malevolent trauma to enter our lives. As we observed last week, most of this stress and trauma is the result of our fallen world and the destructive choices that people make, ourselves included. But God will use it for good – in our lives, and in the lives of those around us.
PRE-STRESS RESILIENCE TRAINING
What do you think Floyd Mayweather did to reach that giant payday? Would it have been sufficient for him to just say, “I know this is going to be tough, and I may get hurt, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be just fine.” If that’s all he did, he wouldn’t have lasted one round with Conor McGregor. To do nothing doesn’t mean you are maintaining the status quo. It means you atrophy, go backward, and become more vulnerable. No, Mayweather invested thousands of hours to prepare himself to meet McGregor.
He was well-equipped to endure the trauma and win the fight. He never thought he would be able to train sufficiently to avoid every hit. What he was going for was resilience.
According to Webster’s, to be resilient is “to be capable of withstanding shock without permanent deformation or rupture.” Read that again: “to be capable of withstanding shock.”
Let’s face the facts: there has been and there will be shock in your career as a first responder. But what can you do to be ready to withstand it? You cannot hope to be isolated from stress, but you can become insulated from its effects.
All professional first responders are required to undergo training before they are qualified to pursue this line of work. You’ve trained your body and your mind to withstand the pressures of your duties, but have you trained your soul?
Tonight, we’re going to explore mindsets and actions you can incorporate not only to help heal your current soul wounds but also to build up your resilience to withstand the stress and trauma still in your future.
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