Turning Trauma Into an Optimal Experience

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is it possible to turn a challenge or trauma into an optimal experience? What are the three components of transformational coping?

Transformational coping—or the ability to turn a stressful situation into a non-stressful one (or even into an optimal experience) is a special skill to have. And even if you can’t do it yourself, just admiring people with these abilities can improve your life.

Keep reading to learn about how to deal with challenges and trauma in your life.

Overcoming Challenges and Trauma

Everyone encounters challenges and obstacles to their health and happiness, some of which are so severe that they make living difficult. And yet, many people who experience difficult circumstances survive and thrive. This article discusses how people create optimal experiences and find flow despite difficult circumstances.

The Three Factors to Coping

People deal with challenges differently. The same challenge may completely overwhelm one person, while it may galvanize another to action. Three factors affect your ability to deal with challenges:

1. Psychological resources. Having certain mental skills helps you overcome challenges. For example, making friends at a new job may feel easier for an extrovert than an introvert.

2. Outside support. Even if you face challenges, having support from family or friends can help you overcome them successfully. For example, if you’re diagnosed with colon cancer, having family or friends you can confide in and insurance that covers the cost of treatment would help you weather it better than you would without those resources.

3. Coping style or coping ability. People have different strategies, or styles of coping with challenges. There are two main styles:

  • Negative: regressive coping or neurotic defense. These responses include trying not to think about the stress, or denying you’re facing it, lashing out at friends and family, or excessive drinking. It may even include deliberately taking on less complex opportunities because you’re afraid of failure.
  • Positive: transformational coping or mature defense. This response consists of setting aside frustration and emotions so you can objectively assess the situation and decide how to proceed.

Example: Jim is a financial executive who gets laid off from his job. If he regressively copes with the situation, he might turn to excessive drinking or express anger or frustration at his spouse. If he transformationally copes with the situation, he might calm himself down and use logic to redefine the problem and outline his next steps. He might decide to search for a job where he can use his existing skills, or he might seek new skills to land a different job. But most often, people use both positive and negative coping strategies. For example, Jim might use regressive coping first, such as drinking excessively and getting in a fight with his spouse, but the next day, he may feel ready to assess the situation and decide what to do. 

People who are able to use positive coping strategies are often admired for being courageous and resilient in the face of hardships. Even just the act of admiring people with these qualities is a helpful exercise because it means you pay close attention to how they do it so you can replicate it for yourself.

The rest of this article will discuss coping styles in more detail because it’s the easiest to adjust of the previous three factors—your psychological resources are determined by genetics, while outside support is only helpful if you already have appropriate coping skills. We’ll first examine the three qualities that allow people to successfully cope.

Three Components of Transformational Coping

Transformational coping (or the ability to turn challenges into optimal experiences) consists of three main components:

1. Unconscious self-assurance. No matter what happens, you feel in control of your destiny and able to adapt to whatever environment or situation you encounter. For example, a pilot is trained to navigate any weather conditions, and because of their training, they’re confident that they can tackle any challenge.

2. Focusing on the world instead of yourself. If you’re narcissistic, and your environment becomes adverse, you shift inward to protect yourself and don’t have the energy to keep engaging with the outside world. Since psychic disorder occurs when you focus on internal challenges, pay more attention to the world to feel part of your environment and overcome challenges. For example, if you’re headed to work for a meeting, but you discover that your car won’t start, you may be overwhelmed by frustration instead of seeking an alternative, such as taking a taxi to work, or working from home. Continuously paying attention to what’s happening in your environment can help you avoid becoming immobilized by frustration or fear.

3. Creating solutions. When you face obstacles to your goals, you have three possible courses of action: Remove the obstacle, alter your goals, or create new goals. For example, if you are hoping to get a promotion at your company and realize that a coworker might be selected instead, you can either work to convince the person making the decision that you’re the best candidate (removing the obstacle), or create new goals and solutions. For the latter option, you might pursue work in a different department, pursue a different career, or adjust your life to invest in non-career goals that could offer enjoyment, such as quality time with your family or spiritual development. Choose a solution that makes your life more enjoyable and is in harmony with your overall goals. 

Studies and Case Studies: Navigating Challenges

Though it’s impossible to say that anyone can overcome any tragedy, we can learn a lot from people who survive and thrive in extreme circumstances. People who thrive feel in control with goal-setting: Instead of letting themselves be immobilized by fear and worry, they make a plan to direct their attention. They may not be physically free, but they’re mentally free.

People who thrive:

  1. Observe the environment, and find the things they’re capable of doing.
  2. Set goals based on what they can do, and monitor progress.
  3. (Once goals are met) Make the challenge harder in some way. 

To better understand how people thrive in difficult circumstances, we’ll explore several examples.

Study 1: Paraplegia

In a study of people with paraplegia in Italy, many participants described the accident that caused them to lose the use of one or more limbs as both the most negative and positive experience of their lives. Despite new challenges, they described having clear goals and an improved sense of what mattered in life compared to before the accident. As they adapted to their new lives, they felt a sense of purpose and pride.

For example, one of the study participants, Franco, described the initial devastation he felt when he lost the use of his legs. Before the accident, Franco had found flow through acrobatic dancing on the weekends, which he could no longer do. Instead, he found enjoyment through counseling other people with paraplegia, helping them navigate despair and make the most of their new lives.

Study 2: Blindness

Another study centered on how people who were blind—those who were born blind and those who develop blindness—adapted to new challenges. People who became blind tended to view the event as both negative and positive. One participant, Paolo, became blind when he was 24. Though the event itself wasn’t positive, it changed Paolo’s behavior, allowing him to better control his consciousness in three ways:

  • He shows himself and others tolerance.
  • He is realistic about his limitations, but he still strives to overcome them.
  • He strives to change situations he dislikes.

Study 3: Homelessness

Many people have experienced homelessness around the world. This situation can be extremely stressful, yet people find flow even within these circumstances. Reyad, a 33-year-old Egyptian man, decided to leave Egypt and hitchhike into Europe to understand himself and the world better. He described his life since then as one giant flow experience: He experienced war, natural disasters, watching friends die, sleeping in roadside ditches during thunderstorms, and finding food and occasional work along the way. These experiences showed him that his purpose on Earth is to be tested so he can better understand himself and his connection with God. In other words, Reyad found more meaning in difficult circumstances than many find in comfort.

Study 4: Solitary Confinement

Many survivors of solitary confinement found creative ways to keep themselves mentally engaged during their confinement instead of succumbing to worry and despair.

Example: One person who survived solitary confinement in a Nazi internment camp described devising the challenge of studying each of the few objects in their environment in detail—the weave of the blankets on the bed and their warmth, who made them, where they had seen blankets like these before, and so on. Research has shown that this process is common for survivors of solitary confinement around the world.

Turning Trauma Into an Optimal Experience

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  • What activities and personality traits promote flow
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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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