Sunday, September 11, 2011

Martin Seligman, Resilience and PTSD - Further Conclusions Based on My Experience

A couple years ago I spent some time working with psychologist Martin Seligman on a DOD project. I had met him and heard him speak numerous times, and he was bringing his expertise in the area of optimism to help the military deal with the problem of service members returning from combat with PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association and "father of positive psychology," is the well-known author of Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness.

His theory is that there's a strong connection between a pessimistic mindset and susceptibility to PTSD. He claims that not everyone is adversely affected by the stress and horrors of war. He talks about a phenomenon he calls "post-traumatic growth," in which most service members return from war made stronger by their experience. This recalls Friedrich Nietzsche's famous quote, "What does not kill me, makes me stronger." He implies that optimistic people are more resilient and will fare better.

My own experience supports Seligman's view. After I returned from my tour in Vietnam in 1970, I experienced no nightmares, no flashbacks, and no psychological difficulties that I was aware of. It may sound odd, but to this day I've never had a dream about Vietnam. I've wondered about that, because so many veterans were severely disturbed by their experiences. Not that my experiences were tame. I commanded a mobile advisor team during my tour, and I participated in over a hundred combat missions, including night ambushes, airmobile assaults and search and destroy missions. I encountered death on many of those missions. I made it back safely, but the captain who replaced me lost a leg on one of his missions.

My theory was that my West Point education and my Ranger training prepared me for combat so well that I understood what was happening over there. At the end, I was plenty eager to return home; but I wasn't bewildered by what happened, and I didn't agonize over it.

Still, the fact that I didn't suffer PTSD didn't mean that my experiences in combat had a purely positive impact on me. When I landed in San Francisco I was quite tense, and it took me a couple days to relax. I also remember that I was a little more edgy and irritable than usual, as if I was suppressing anger, and I didn't completely calm down for about five years. I think at some level I disagreed with the war, even though I was a professional and did my job as well as I could.

Still, I believe my tour in Vietnam made me stronger. Today, I have amazing composure. Nothing rattles me.

Yes, I was optimistic before I went over, and that may have helped. I've always been optimistic. Also, my training strengthened my composure and perseverance, both of which served me well in Vietnam.

So, my two cents...

1. When understanding resilience, consider more than optimism. Add composure and perseverance. And critical thinking skills. If warriors can make sense of what's going on, they are less likely to panic and feel bewildered by their experience.

2. Even those who benefit from post-traumatic growth may have to work through some emotional difficulties. War really is hell. Nobody who endures it gets a free pass.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .


demuzeekmon said...

Thank you for your service to our country. We remain a free country because of the will of the men and women who accept the call to sacrifice some part of or all of their lifes for the call of freedom. Thank you! Duane

Josh Kuehler said...

How exciting to work with Dr. Seligman! I'm active in the positive psychology field and enjoyed Authentic Happiness.

To what extent is self-awareness related to Post Traumatic Growth? It sounds like the West Point and Ranger training helped enhance your self-awareness (at both the macro level and micro level) and helped avoid/prevent PTSD.

Thank you for your service and knowledge!

Tom Sikorski said...

Your article reminds me of an old analogy. The same hot water hardens eggs and softens carrots. Your work is like beans...rather than being affected by the hot water, you turn IT into COFFEE for others to ENJOY. Thanks!