What Can We Learn from Those Who Survived Deadly Stress

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.

In his best known book, which was titled “Man’s Search for Meaning” he described a prisoner who had a vivid dream in which he was told that he could have one wish. He wished that the suffering would end by a specified date. The dream had seemed so real, and had touched him so deeply that he believed his wish would be granted. He did well until the specified date occurred and his wish was not granted.

After that day he swiftly declined and died.

Scientifically, this story would provide mere anecdotal evidence of the power of hope and of how lethal the loss of hope can be. In more recent time, systematic research has also confirmed the value of finding meaning, purpose, and hope.

Research published in the 1970s by an American-Israeli Medical Sociologist, Aaron Antonovsky, who had long studied survivors of the Nazi Holocaust discovered a pattern that did distinguish people who adapted most effectively. He found that people who did well had a set of attitudes he termed a “sense of coherence”.

What did he mean by “sense of coherence”? It corresponded very closely with Frankl’s view. People with this view of life tended to find meaning or purpose, even in this worst of environments. They also were able to find a way to live according to some purpose or purposes, and to find some way to make sense of the world they were living in, no matter how senseless that world might seem.

The model of resilience we have used for decades was based on statistical analyses of data that represented patterns of resilience, and they have consistently shown that the most important factor nicely reflects the views of Frankl and Antonovsky. We think of it as “positive attitudes and skills”, and it includes optimism and hope, but also an inclination to take a problem-solving attitude toward distressing circumstances.

Want to apply these ideas to your own life? Onresilience has many posts on how to do that. Try this one, and this one, for example.

With respect to finding purpose in your life, it often seems endless and a bit too “philosophical”. Victor Frankl offers an approach that makes this search easier. He points out that life confronts us with experiences that point out a purpose for us.

What does this mean? Suppose you have an elderly parent or grandparent living in your house, who falls down your long flight of stairs and breaks her hip? She is in extreme pain and crying for help. Your immediate purpose is to get her to medical care as quickly as possible.

From a resilience point of view, the key is to recognize that you are fulfilling a very meaningful purpose. You will have to problem solve to decide whether (before you know you are dealing with a broken hip) to move her or call for an ambulance. You pick the solution that you hope will provide her with the best outcome.


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