Last week, we had every reason to be shocked again about how cruel our world can be. The shooting in Aurora, Colorado, was in bizarre contrast with the fun evening that the movie goers expected to have. There was the one-year anniversary of Breivik’s attack in Norway. Our TVs screened ongoing, severe violence in Syria and other parts of the world. Not much reason to be optimistic, it seems.
However, the personality factor ‘optimism’ in itself may be an important asset when confronted with terrible things: Feelings of optimism and hope may help our recovery from a traumatic event.
In 2007, Hobfoll and colleagues wrote a seminal article on the five essential elements of immediate and mid-term mass-trauma intervention. The first four principles considered the importance of making people feel safe and comfortable, calming them when necessary, enhancing their feeling of being in control, and promoting connectedness with loved ones and support networks. The fifth principle was to promote hope. The authors described that there is strong evidence for the importance of retaining hope in recovery.
Recently, researchers published on the American prisoners of war who were held in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. These veterans had been examined for psychological functioning shortly after their return. In 2010, 37 years later, their resilience was measured, defined as an absence of psychiatric diagnoses. It turned out that optimism was the strongest predictor of mental health.
How can we facilitate a feeling of hope or optimism? Without stepping in the trap of underrating the distress and challenges that survivors experience? Taking the authors’ and various other tips together, there are a number of things we can do to help:
- Build on strengths: what goes well, and how can we amplify this? You can also ask what has worked for someone on earlier occasions; this may not only give them guidance but also remind them of earlier problem solving capacities.
- Convey the message that most people recover spontaneously and that feeling distressed shortly after an event does not mean that you’re going crazy.
- If someone exaggerates their personal responsibility (‘It’s all my fault’), reduce it with a sensitive cognitive behavioral intervention
- Decatastrophize: promote fact-based thinking instead of overly negative expectations. It is more helpful to accept a realistic difficult outcome (‘It will take months to rebuild my house’) than to envision a catastrophic outcome (‘I’ll never have a home again’)
- Facilitate interventions by the media, schools and universities and community leaders that work towards positive goals, organize cleaning and rebuilding, and help people to tell their story.
What’s your take on the role of optimism? And do you have tips to enhance it?
Hobfoll SE, Watson P, Bell CC, Bryant RA, Brymer MJ, Friedman MJ, Friedman M, Gersons BP, de Jong JT, Layne CM, Maguen S, Neria Y, Norwood AE, Pynoos RS, Reissman D, Ruzek JI, Shalev AY, Solomon Z, Steinberg AM, & Ursano RJ (2007). Five essential elements of immediate and mid-term mass trauma intervention: empirical evidence. Psychiatry, 70 (4) PMID: 18181708
Segovia, F., Moore,J.L., Linnville,S.E., Hoyt, R.E., & Hain, R.E. (2012). Optimism predicts resilience in repatriated prisoners of war: A 37-year longitudinal study Journal of Traumatic Stress, 25, 330-336 DOI: 10.1002/jts.21691