In this post we take a look at ways people manage to live at the outer limits of survivable stress without totally breaking down.
Our rationale? If the methods have worked in the nastiest even potentially fatal settings, there is a good chance that some version of them will help most of us.
A look at the lives of people who have lived through an ultra-stressful period of their lives quickly reveals that there are striking differences in how well people handle intense, and even deadly stress.
For decades there seemed to be no way to tell who would survive such lethal environments and who would not.
Anne Applebaum has a deep knowledge of one such environment, the brutal Soviet “Gulag” prison camps.
Her profound study of the Gulags failed to provide her with any formula for predicting who might survive them. This passage illustrates her views:
“… almost everyone who lived through the experiences of the Gulag agrees that survival was impossible to predict in advance. The mildest people sometimes found an inner strength they had not known of before. The bravest sometimes could not accept the daily humiliation, and died quickly. The strongest sometimes suffered the most from the lack of food. The weakest sometimes survived because no one bothered to torment them. In the end, the very quirkiness of human nature defies even the most drastic attempts to predict or control it. It is hardly surprising, then, that it is difficult to predict as well.” Applebaum (2003).
Findings from controlled research on ultra-stressful environments also left the investigators baffled about what might enable people to deal with those situations.
One striking study done under the auspices of the U.S. Navy, “Project Sealab II”, was designed to identify qualities in people that helped them get through the experience of living deep under the ocean in a crowded, uncomfortable, often frustrating environment. Sealab largely disconnected them from the outside world and had settled at an angle that produced many problems, including impaired sleep. In addition, it was life-threatening because mistakes at the depths of the ocean could quickly result in death for oneself and others.
Before participants were transferred to Sealab, they were given an extensive array of psychological tests. Surely some of the tests would predict who would be resilient enough to excel in dealing with the challenges.
However, it is easy to summarize the results of this study: Consistent with Applebaum’s account of the unpredictable reactions to the Gulags, none of the psychological tests distinguished between who would do well and who would be overwhelmed.
There was one outstanding dissenter about whether breakdown and even death is likely to occur in the horrible settings we have been discussing. Victor Frankl, a Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School was, when the Nazis took over Austria, sent to a sequence of concentration camps. Well known ones were Auschwitz and Dachau. He wrote a number of books about his experiences in the camps and his analysis of people’s reaction.
He concluded that maintaining a sense of meaning, purpose, and hope was central to surviving. Some people would lose those qualities, and then die quickly.