03/16/2013 11:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Can a Tragedy Be the Best Thing That Ever Happened to You?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Abraham Lincoln called it, "the silent artillery of time." Each of us, if we happen to live long enough, will get cut down by a life-changing, perhaps life-ending, event. In scientific terms we refer to stress as a stimulus that alters homeostasis. But scientific terminology is intentionally dispassionate, and can fall short of conveying the full impact of a word. Consider blastoma versus cancer. When scientists refer to high-magnitude stress, what we're talking about in human terms is suffering. We know that suffering is amplified when we don't see it coming, when we don't have any control over it, and when it's something we've never had to deal with before. All of which makes Stacey Kramer, and those who respond to suffering like she has, even more remarkable.

So why do people like Stacey Kramer, hit with life's silent artillery seemingly out of nowhere, respond in such a positive and adaptive way? To be sure, scientific answers to this important question are incomplete. The program of research my lab has been involved in is dedicated to discovering brain-behavior relationships that promote recovery from intense stress. We've found that individuals who respond well to stress have unique brain-body communication. More specifically, we've found differences in a small region of the brain, the insula cortex, that mediates the brain's awareness of what the body is feeling. Not just what the body is feeling in terms of the traditional five senses, but also awareness of emotional states. In highly stress-resilient individuals we see evidence that their brains are better at anticipating and recovering from stressors.

Stacey Kramer was a model for all of us when she referred to her brain tumor as a "gift" that brought her family together and strengthened her faith. As she well knows, this notion is much easier said than lived. -- Douglas C. Johnson

It's also not as simple as one brain region conferring an advantage. Brain-behavior relationships are part of a complicated dynamic. In addition to unique brain-behavior interactions, individuals who respond well to stress and suffering also think differently. They tend to reframe stressors in a beneficial way, and they have an impressive ability to extract meaning from suffering. Pioneers of stress and coping research, Susan Folkman and Richard Lazarus highlighted the role cognitive reappraisal can have on our biological response to stress. Folkman and Lazarus found that when we encounter a stressor, the brain often makes automatic assumptions about what that stressor means, and how it will impact our future and family. The problem with these assumptions is not just that they can be wrong, but the very act of thinking them often impairs our ability to respond and recover. Being able to catch, identify, and generate alternative interpretations is a critical cognitive skill, and individuals who respond well to stress are good at it. Stacey Kramer was a model for all of us when she referred to her brain tumor as a "gift" that brought her family together and strengthened her faith. As she well knows, this notion is much easier said than lived.

There are others who similarly inspire. I've heard a combat veteran who lost a limb in an IED explosion say, "I do more now with one arm than I ever did with two." After listening to Stacey Kramer, I immediately thought of Joni Erickson Tada. Joni was interviewed on Larry King Live and talked about being paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident. From the age of 18 she's been a quadriplegic, unable to feed herself, bathe, or go to the bathroom without help. She referred to her paralysis as, "the best thing that's ever happened to me." Joni learned how to paint by holding a brush in her teeth. She went on to create Wheels for the World, a Christian ministry that collects, restores, and distributes for free over 10,000 wheelchairs per year to children and adults with disabilities. When asked why she considered spinal-cord injury such a positive life-changing event, she described how that event forced her to die to self, and enter into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

It's also clear that the brain-behavior relationships manifest by people who successfully navigate suffering is not blind optimism or disingenuous positive thinking. Their suffering is as real and painful as it is for others. Viktor Frankl called it "tragic optimism." Frankl knew something about suffering and optimal performance in extreme environments. Frankl saw his father, mother, brother, and wife sent to death in concentration camps. He went on to be an influential psychiatrist and founder of logotherapy. In doing so he defined how tragic optimism was a mental framework for turning human suffering into achievement, and translating guilt into self-improvement. All of which are predicated on the ability to extract meaning and purpose from our short lives here on earth. If you truly know who you are, and why you're here, you're likely to adapt to life's silent artillery better than those who don't.

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