Thursday, January 7, 2010

The healthy side of stress and trauma: Learn your tap code

I recently heard a presentation by doctor Dennis Charney of Mount Sinai Medical School who studies human resilience: How some people are able to live healthy, productive lives after experiencing major life trauma. One group he’s studied are former prisoners of war, many held and tortured for up to 8 years. While many former-POWs experience life-long mental and physical health troubles related to their trauma, many emerge from their experience in surprisingly good mental health.

One of the keys to being a resilient survivor is social contacts. Throughout history, POWs were frequently held in isolation and communicated using a “tap code” to spell out words from an alphabet matrix similar to the one on the left. With plenty of time at their disposal, they not only exchange pleasantries, but will discuss car repair, even teach foreign languages. In addition to providing a form of communication, the tap code keeps you mentally sharp, requiring concentration to translate taps into letters, and string them together to spell words. Tap codes are so fundamental, that Charney has borrowed the term to refer to any method used to maintain mental-health sustaining social contacts in the face of hardship, as in “what’s your tap code?”

While traumas can take a toll on our health, they can also enhance resilience in the face of future health threats. Much hinges on how we perceive life ordeals and how we choose to react to them. Surprisingly, when asked if they would want to completely erase their POW experience if they could, most former-POWs who exhibit high levels of resilience say no: They realize that the lessons learned have served them well. I’ve heard cancer survivors say the same thing: That the experience of being supported by a care team working together to save their life was so powerful, that they are in effect thankful for experiencing cancer. By comparison, future travails likely don’t seem so dire.

And witness Tsutomu Yamaguchi, one of the few Japanese who survived the nuclear explosions at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He died this week at age 93, remarkably at peace with his experience. Interviews with him capture a serene survivor who chose to forgo anger and bitterness and instead use his horrific experience to educate others on the merits of peace.

It’s a vast overstatement to suggest that health is all “mind over matter” or that positive thoughts will heal disease, but there is no question that a calm disposition in the face of threats is less likely to lead to ill health than a highly stressed response. Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky is another researcher who has written reams on the health damaging effects of stress responses. Developed over millennia to help us outrun lions, stress serves few positive purposes for contemporary humans, but contributes to myriad diseases. One way to deal with life’s daily stressors? Reaching out to friends and family for social support. In a word, having a tap code.

What’s your tap code?

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1 comment:

  1. A good reminder of the classic work on this topic --Victor Frankls' book "Mans search for Meaning" based on his training in psychology/psychiatry and his experience in German camps in WWII. I think there is a frame one can have towards events, even ones this horrific, that enhance the "meaning" or potential value and control. In Frankls book one of the unique elements was that this frame or view was larger than his single life but not religious or divisive. The impulse to connect, the energy spent working out a way to do so, and the sense that our voice or experience matters to others-- that they are listening for our tap code, looking to our model, sensing the small gesture of warmth is humanizing. The stuff of resilience. Thanks Ano