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It won't kill you -- trauma makes us stronger

M ichael Paterson had been married for three weeks when his armoured Land Rover was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in West Belfast. It tore off the young RUC officer's arms and killed the vehicle's driver.

His story of survival after trauma started in horror and could be expected to end there. But a new book by a professor of psychology challenges perceptions of the effects of life-changing events. In 'What Doesn't Kill Us', Stephen Joseph shares evidence collected over decades to show that, far from ruining lives, traumatic episodes -- from divorce to natural disasters -- can indeed make us stronger.

Mr Joseph asked dozens of survivors to complete a survey. Results from his and similar studies suggests as many as 70pc of people report positive changes.

Mr Joseph said: "They talk about feeling wiser, more mature and compassionate. They are stronger, more resilient and talk about re-ordering priorities."

Michael Paterson, the Belfast policeman blown up in 1981, is one of the survivors whose recovery Mr Joseph has studied. Mr Paterson also sustained horrific injuries to one of his legs.


Months of intensive care followed. There were low moments. "I was in a splint and a nurse was dressing my leg," Mr Paterson recalled.

"I saw the mess of my leg and the mess of my arms and tears flowed down my cheeks. The nurse held me in a maternal way and I stopped crying. But those tears became locked in for years."

It was therapy that helped Mr Paterson release those emotions, but by then he had already defied expectations, both of an armless terror victim and of a school drop-out who saw himself as a failure, by turning to academia.

Mr Joseph does not offer a cure to post-traumatic stress but said equal emphasis should be given to post-traumatic growth. "They should go hand in glove," he said.

"With the right kind of coping, the spiral can go upwards. It turns on its head what we think about trauma. We begin to think of post-traumatic stress not so much as a disorder as a normal and natural process of adjustment that, if it's managed the right way, eventually leads to growth," he added. (Independent News Service)

Irish Independent