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Mindful : April 2019
of burning, or even sweat—like that which ran in rivulets down the faces of men fighting for their lives in the sweltering jungles—brought it all back. It was classic post-traumatic stress. As Tsai was treating him (success- fully) for PTSD, however, something unexpected emerged. The vet still described his Vietnam experiences as horrific, but he said the painful mem- ories remind him of who he is. His experience typifies research psychol- ogists’ new understanding of trauma: When people are least resilient—in the sense that they are knocked for a loop, do not bounce back quickly or at all, Picking Up the Pieces What causes us to move on from traumatic experiences? Psychologists are finding resilience is not always about bouncing back; sometimes we have to feel our whole world fall to pieces. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Sharon Begley is senior science writer with STAT, a national health and medicine publication. She is also author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain and most recently Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions (2017, Simon & Schuster). and suffer emotionally for months, if not years—they can eventually emerge from trauma stronger, more apprecia- tive of life, more sympathetic to the suffering of others, and with different (arguably more enlightened) values and priorities. By no stretch of the imagination would the vet be called resilient in the sense that research psychologists use the term: an ability to go on with life, essentially unchanged mentally and emotionally, in the wake of profound adversity. To the contrary, environ- mental triggers returned the vet’s troubled mind to the horrors of → The Vietnam War veteran had enlisted when he was young, serv- ing two combat tours and surviving multiple firefights. “To this day,” said psychologist Jack Tsai of the Yale School of Medicine, “his war mem- ories are triggered by certain smells that remind him of Vietnam”: over- grown vegetation, the acrid stench FOR MANY, POST-TRAUMATIC GROWTH BRINGS CLOSER RELATIONSHIPS AND A STRONGER SENSE OF CONNECTION TO OTHER SUFFERERS. 32 mindful April 2019 By Sharon Begley • Illustrations by Edmon de Haro brain science brain science