Wellness Wednesday: From pandemic to purpose — healing and growth after trauma

December 23, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources,

The end of 2020 is in sight, along with promising vaccines and new treatment therapies aimed at taming and possibly even ending the pandemic that has consumed our lives. Hope is also on the horizon for a more peaceful political environment, and important work is being done to address the social and racial inequities that plague our country.

While challenges remain, and a great deal of work lies ahead, all of this positive movement should fill us with optimism and energy as we head into a new year, right? At long last, we can begin to brush off the dust from 2020 and move on!

If only it were that easy.

The events of this year have left their mark on all of us, some more deeply than others. The loss of loved ones, patients, social connections, life routines and holiday traditions has cut deep. And, although a brighter future is on its way, it may take some time to get here.

The pain and trauma we’ve endured this year could be hard to shake, but Victor Strecher, Ph.D., professor in the U-M School of Public Health and U-M Medical School, and renowned author and speaker, believes we can move forward, heal and even thrive by finding — or rediscovering — purpose in our lives. His own life experience and decades of research tell him this is true.

Recovering from loss

Strecher is no stranger to trauma and loss. In 2010, his daughter Julia died at the age of 19 following a lifelong health challenge. Born healthy, Julia’s only hope for survival after a chicken pox virus attacked her heart was to undergo a heart transplant at the age of 14 months.

At nine years old, she was in need of a second transplant, which was performed successfully at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, giving Julia another 10 years of life.

“The trauma she endured, and the medical care she received throughout her life, gave her purpose,” said Strecher.

Julia was in nursing school at U-M. She wanted to be a nurse, to give back.

“Through her trauma, Julia discovered she wanted to develop a self-transcending purpose — and she did that,” Strecher said. “She lived a big life and when she died, she died happy.”

When Julia passed away, however, Strecher lost his own purpose. One morning a couple of months after her death, during the darkest period in his life, Strecher found himself kayaking miles from shore on Lake Michigan in the hours before dawn. He was tempted to keep paddling and never turn back.

In that moment, he felt his daughter’s presence, telling him he needed to focus on something bigger than himself. He turned back toward shore and began to think about what was most important in his life. He came to the realization that giving back to his students mattered most and made a decision right then that he would teach every student as if they were his own child, his Julia.

This renewed sense of purpose helped Strecher heal from the loss of his daughter. He is now able to look back on the most traumatic event in his life as an experience that was not only harmful but also beneficial. The purpose born of his pain helped him grow to find happiness and fulfillment.

Benefits of purposeful living

Strecher is a behavioral scientist who studies the impact of purpose in our lives and has written books on the transformational power of living with purpose.

“The benefits of purpose are many,” Strecher said. “Having a strong self-transcending purpose is associated with reduced inflammation and increased antibody response. Living with purpose at retirement is associated with lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

“A strong sense of purpose also has been shown to reduce depression and increase emotional regulation,” he said.

People living with purpose are more likely to engage in preventive health care, have improved physical activity, diet and sleep, and are less likely to misuse drugs.

This is all great news, but how can we find purpose in the aftermath of a year that has run us into the ground emotionally, exhausted us physically and used up so much of the energy we once had?

Finding purpose after trauma

Strecher’s other purpose in life is helping people live more purposefully. He is a frequent speaker on the topic and offers a free online course, Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life: Living for What Matters Most.

“Can you think back to a time when you grew in your life, becoming more mature or stronger?” he asked in a recent Short Takes “Reflect and Recharge” video address for Michigan Medicine faculty and staff. “Chances are it was at a time in your life when things were difficult,” he said.

Strecher said we tend to grow the most during rough times because those challenges cause us to think about what’s important and recognize our strengths.

“Veterans who have gone through war and who are able to grow are the ones who end up finding new purpose when they get back,” he said. “If they can’t find new purpose and discover strengths through this difficult experience they’ve had, they often develop post-traumatic stress.”

Strecher suggested that we ask ourselves two important questions:

  • What are your strengths?
  • What matters most in your life?

“Focusing on those things can help you find new purpose,” he said.

Care first for yourself

Purpose requires energy. At the same time, living purposefully creates energy.

“What helps you become more purposeful?” Strecher asked. “What helps you develop more energy during the day and what helps you find energy for your family after work?”

Living with purpose often involves caring for others in some way and, to do that, we must first care for ourselves. Strecher said one easy-to-remember strategy for self-care is to give ourselves SPACE, which he defines this way:

Sleep: get the rest your body and mind need

Presence: be mindful and live in the moment

Activity: be active and exercise for physical and emotional health

Creativity: explore new things, develop new talents

Eat Well: eat healthy to stay strong and feel your best

“Finding and living with purpose is so important,” said Strecher. “In the midst of pain and suffering, it can sometimes be hard to look ahead with optimism or believe things will ever feel okay again.”

“Think about what matters most in your life,” he said, “and then take care of yourself so you can focus on that.”

For confidential counseling at no cost, referrals, and information on how to address mental and emotional health concerns, faculty and staff can contact the Office of Counseling and Workplace Resilience at counseling.med.umich.edu, or by calling 734-763-5409.