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Archive for January, 2016

And the Greatest Is Love

January 25th, 2016

The following article was reprinted with permission from Correctional Oasis, Volume 13, Issue 1.

Who does not want to be resilient and happy, and have a long and healthy life? I’d venture to say, most, if not all of us, do! The key is how to get to that place, and how to find our way back to that sweet spot after getting blown off course by some of life’s turbulence. To achieve these goals, we need to know and practice behaviors that contribute to enduring resilience, to happiness, and to an improved quality and perhaps even length of life.

In this and subsequent articles I’d like to discuss some of the factors that research has shown promote resilience, happiness, well-being, and even longevity.

To start with, I want to highlight some research evidence on the factor of social relationships, as good relationships seem to be a major contributor to resilience, happiness and well-being.

According to a report [1] in which 270 relevant studies on resilience were examined, the following were found to be among the factors that were strong resilience boosters in military populations: family support, a positive military command climate, and community belongingness.

Family Support refers to perceiving that comfort is available from, and can be provided to, others, and includes emotional, informational, instrumental, tangible, and spiritual support.

Positive Command Climate, in the context of military units, includes facilitating and fostering positive interactions within a unit, effective leadership, and positive role modeling.

Community Belongingness includes the integration of the individual in their community, friendships, and participation in spiritual/faith-based organizations, protocols, ceremonies, social services, and schools, among others.

According to another study [2] mortality of older married individuals was found to be significantly reduced for those who reported providing instrumental support to friends, relatives, and neighbors, and for individuals who reported providing emotional support to their spouse. Receiving support had no effect on mortality when giving support was taken into consideration. That is, the key ingredient for increased longevity was the giving of support.

Interestingly, in a study of corrections professionals, DWCO research [3] established that supportive staff relationships efforts (giving support to other staff) increased the giver’s resilience. Specifically, the following behaviors were found to promote the resilience of GIVERS of these behaviors:

  • Supporting others through communication (e.g., validations, acknowledgements)
  • Talking to others about best practices and lessons learned
  • Seizing opportunities to encourage teamwork and collaboration
  • Exerting effort to maintain professional relationships or repair damaged ones
  • Making efforts to “stay connected” to other staff
  • Taking advantage of opportunities to improve the workplace environment generally

Similarly, research on authentic happiness [4] examined the effects of having strong ties to friends and family, and com-miting to spend time with them. The study found that strong personal relationships contributed to a sense of genuine happiness and a lower number of depression symptoms, compared to study participants who did not report strong personal relationships. The authors concluded that good social relations are necessary for happiness.

Another contributor to the resilience of corrections professionals was found to be, in the context of self-care—acting to ensure that their relationships with significant others were healthy/satisfactory [3]. More specifically, the following behaviors that targeted the quality of personal relationships were found to boost resilience of corrections staff:

  • Taking steps to ensure engaging in activities and enjoyment during time outside of work
  • Taking steps to address potential personal relationship difficulties related to workplace stress
  • Taking steps to stay emotionally connected with others outside the workplace
  • Letting go of workplace issues when returning home after their shift
  • Maintaining an optimistic frame of mind (which makes a person easier to be around)
  • Letting go of anger related to workplace frustrations, so it does not affect one’s personal time and relationships

Perhaps it would not be much of a leap to equate having strong and supportive relationships to having loving relation-ships, where love in various forms is given and received in a back and forth loop. If so, what would love look like in action? What are basic attitudes and behaviors that characterize loving relationships, and which can apply to all types of relationships and interactions— be it in one’s family, one’s community, or in the workplace?

Here is a partial list of some attitudes and behaviors that convey love:

  • Listening well to hear what is said and what is implied (“the story behind the news”), making time to hear people out. This requires caring, respect and patience. Paul Tillich said that the first duty of love is to listen.
  • Seeing the good in people, and identifying and pointing out their specific strengths.
  • Encouraging others when they’re down and tempted to give up.
  • Letting people know that you believe that they can improve and grow.
  • Cheering people on as they make efforts to improve and to accomplish goals.
  • Rejoicing with people when they rejoice, and mourning with them when they mourn. This requires empathy, the capacity to put yourself in their shoes and understand where they are coming from.
  • Being compassionate toward others who are suffering, both verbally and through practical acts of service.
  • Taking the necessary steps to make time to spend quantity and quality time with those who matter to you.
  • Celebrating their successes with them without giving in to envy and the temptation to undermine them.
  • Working hard on resolving disagreements and conflicts through dialogue, even if at times that means agree-ing to respectfully disagree.
  • Asking for forgiveness and/or making amends for your wrongdoing, failures or for dropping the ball.
  • Forgiving/letting go of grudges, and starting afresh without bringing up past failures or wrongdoing again. This is a step that people have to work out in their own minds and hearts, as letting go of grudges looks different to different people.

As stated in past articles, and based on DWCO’s research and clinical experience, psychological traumatization is an inherent occupational risk in corrections. In the context of the current article’s discussion of the contribution of social relationships to resilience, happiness, and well-being, it is critical to note that several of the cardinal symptoms of PTSD undermine social connections, and interfere with the capacity to have healthy relationships and to love.

For example, according to the DSM-5 [5], one of the symptoms of PTSD is a persistent inability to experience positive emotions, such as loving feelings of affection or tenderness. One can only imagine the effects of that on relationships.

Two other related PTSD symptoms also affect social interactions. These are “feelings of detachment or estrangement from others” and “markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities [5]”. Again, it is not difficult to see how these symptoms would sabotage relationships.

Additionally, the PTSD symptom of avoiding (or making efforts to avoid) people, places and events that are reminders of trauma can interfere with what could otherwise be satisfying and enjoyable social interactions and activities [5]. Trau-matized persons either do not participate at all, or if they do, they remain aloof and/or cut such engagements short.

And lastly, PTSD can result in “irritable behavior and angry outbursts (with little or no provocation) typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression toward people or objects [5]”. Obviously, such behaviors can poison and even destroy relationships.

So, not only does PTSD affect sufferers in terms of their experiencing haunting memories and related physiological symptoms, it also interferes with and undermines one of their most important resources for healing and recovery—their relationships and social support systems.

Since corrections staff (and in particular security/custody staff) and other first responders suffer from post-traumatic symptoms at much higher rates than the general population, it is critical that they discipline themselves to make every effort to protect, preserve and enhance their key relationships. That is, they need to deliberately and often engage with others in enjoyable activities, connect emotionally with trusted others by sharing personal feelings and thoughts, express caring and affection, and provide support to coworkers, relatives and friends. The pursuit of positive social interactions has to be intentional and focused. Certain such activities have to be scheduled in the calendar just like high-priority medical appointments, otherwise they will not happen.

In conclusion, giving support and having loving interactions are major contributors to well-being and psychological resilience, and perhaps even to longevity. They form the foundation on which other factors that promote resilience and well-being can be built.

And now I’d like to close with a true story of what I consider to be “love in action” in corrections.

A while back I received the following email from a Correctional Officer, with the subject “How do you offer assis-tance?” It is reproduced here with permission, and with all identifying details removed or altered.

“I am acquainted with a supervisor who works second watch. I work third. I only see him for about 15 minutes during shift change. He told me that he is in the process of losing a very significant and long-term relationship. I can tell by his words and from personal experience that he is about to go down a dark road. And I can tell that he is contem-plating the final choice. Any ideas on how to approach the subject and share that I have been there and that a new life and experience can be afforded to him?”

After thanking the writer for his concern and for going out of his way to show caring to the supervisor, I replied:

“Express your caring and concern to the supervisor. Tell him you’ve been down that road, that it hurt like crazy, but that you got through it, and perhaps share what healthy strategies helped you. Don’t minimize the pain of the loss, as if someone can easily be replaced. Most importantly I recommend you let administrators and/or a psychologist at your facility know your concerns so a psychologist can talk to him, assess the situation, intervene as needed, and offer him resources. I know that staff may be reluctant to ‘rat’ on a friend, but this is not ratting. It is about doing all you can to avert or lessen the risk of a tragic event happening. And keep offering support to him, such as getting together after work—without alcohol being involved. Give him the number for the national lifeline, 800-273-8255, and SAFE CALL NOW at 206-459-3020, a hotline for first responders, including corrections staff. You can also offer to go with him to a counseling appointment and wait in the waiting room. I also know of people who stayed with someone at their house or had them stay at theirs till they got over the crisis phase. As you’re well aware, people going through loss like you’re describing can be overwhelmed by emotional pain. They need to grieve, but oftentimes don’t know how to do that in healthy ways. Be there to help him grieve.”

I received this reply the very next day:

“Thank you for your kind words and advice. Today I was able to talk to him and I was also able to connect him with our peer support group at our facility.”

To me, this situation exemplifies love in action 100%. This Correctional Officer noted the need, and went out of his way to seek help for this supervisor (whom he did not even know well). His actions could very well have saved this person’s life. At the very least, they helped encourage that individual, point him to resources, and let him know he matters, that others care sincerely about him.

And according to what research shows, the Correctional Officer was blessed abundantly for his caring. He received a boost to his own sense of happiness/joy and resilience simply by reaching out to someone else in need.

[1] Meredith, L.S., Sherbourne, C.D., Gaillot, S., Hansell, L., Hans V., Ritschard, H.V., Parker, A.M., & Wren, G. (2011). Promoting Psychological Resilience in the U.S. Military. RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research.
[2] Brown, S. L., Nesse, R. M., Vinokur, A. D., & Smith, D. M. (2003). Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving ot: Results from a prospective study of mortality. Psychological Science, 14, 320–327. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.14461.
[3] Denhof, M.D., & Spinaris, C.G. (2014). Corrections Staff Resilience Inventory.
[4] Diener, E., & Seligman, M. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13. doi: 10.1111/1467-9280.00415.
[5] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) (Fifth Ed.). Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.