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A close-up of a newly opened delphinium flower (Summer 2013).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan: Mending the Broken Pieces

The strongest oak of the forest is not the one that is protected 
from the storm and hidden from the sun. 
It's the one that stands in the open where it is compelled 
to struggle for its existence against the winds 
and rains and the scorching sun.

~Napoleon Hill (1883-1970)

I had planned to write about happiness this week. However, the events in Japan, with its untold human suffering, made me decide to write this piece. No one who has seen disaster like this remains untouched.

Today I will write about two important research findings: the mirror neurons in the brain and post-traumatic growth. The former enables us to respond to the Japanese people's experience of crisis while the latter enables the Japanese people to respond to their crisis.

Mirror neurons. In the last decade, scientists found mirror neurons in the brain-- "specialized brain cells that can actually sense and then mimic the feelings, actions, and physical sensations of another person" (Iacoboni, 2008). These neurons are responsible for our capacity to empathize with others when they experience misfortune or to feel joy with them in good times.

These mirror neurons enable us to "copy" the sufferings of the Japanese people, as if we are there, as if we are the Japanese. These brain cells make us empathize and care even for complete strangers who are experiencing crisis and tragedy.

We might go on our daily business as Japan continues to cope and grieve in the midst of the immense devastation. But a part of us is also trying to cope and grieve. A part of us wants to help. Thanks to these brain neurons, we are capable of "being with" them in their time of pain and grieving.

Post-traumatic growth.  Although we normally think of recovery as a positive outcome after a disaster, studies show that there is a positive outcome of another kind, called post-traumatic growth (PTG) . Other terms used for this positive outcome are personal transformation, thriving, resilience, positive life change, stress-related growth, and meaning reconstruction. 

Studies reveal that great suffering or trauma can actually lead to great positive change across a wide range of experience (e.i., Madrid bombings in 2004, the 9/11, illness from cancer). What kind of positive growth? Increases in spirituality, compassion for others, acceptance of life's paradoxes, and heightened existential awareness (see Gerrish, Dyke, & Marsh, 2009). The positive growth that comes from trauma is not only a "bouncing back" but also a "bouncing forward" (Pat-Horenczyk & Brom, 2007).

How can the Japanese people cope with what is happening now and after? They can bounce back if they can return to the pre-crisis conditions. Or they can bounce forward and reconstruct their lives. However, there might not be a return to normalcy in events of this magnitude--the earthquake, then the tsunami, and now, the possible radiation problem. Hence, the Japanese can choose to bounce forward (see Walsh, 2004).

Below are some of the ways the Japanese people can bounce forward:

Developing new modes of thinking: 

1. Accepting that suffering is part of the universe and that their world (and also ours) has irrevocably changed.
2. Creating new meanings out from their losses and being grateful for what are left untouched (being alive, the capacity to care and love).
3. Being open to the notion that the worst of times also brings out the best in most people (i.e., positive psychological growth). 
4. Being aware that recovery from traumatic events is not found in quick and easy solutions but in perseverance and in struggling well.
5. Being hopeful in finding new strengths, untapped potentials, and creative efforts in the re-building process. Hope, which is future-oriented, is the strongest predictor of mental health (see Raphael and Ma, 2011).

Developing new modes of acting:

1. Re-connecting with families, relatives, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Positive growth from trauma is nurtured by supportive relationships.
2. Volunteering, in whatever capacity, to ease the pain and suffering of the general population. The benefit one derives for one's self is as great as that which one gives to others, according to Dr. Sam Goldstein.
3. Asking help from other people when everything seems insurmountable. This is the time to let go of individualistic attitude in favor of collective efforts.
4. Focusing on the problems head-on, from the most urgent to the most important (i.g., identifying who need more resources and protection).
5. Turning to one's faith as a source of solace and comfort. Religious activities can moderate depression and stress, based on numerous studies. 

In a globally connected world, the suffering of the Japanese is shown in an instant. We grieve with them, in an instant. Their pain is our pain, their loss is ours.

Yet, let us not forget the innate resilience of humankind. We have survived through indescribable suffering in the past from various disasters, both man-made and natural.

The Japanese survived through World War II and earthquakes in the past. Although this recent event may be more catastrophic, they will rebuild, recover, and build a stronger nation. And although this could take time, they will get there eventually.

Japan can mend the broken pieces and become whole again.


Note to my readers: Leave your message in the Comments box below.

Be blessed.


Gerrish, N., Dyke, M. J.,  & Marsh, A. (2009). Post-traumatic growth and bereavement. Mortality, 14(3), 227-244.

Pat-Horenczyk, R., & Brom, D. (2007). The multiple faces of post-traumatic growth. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 56(3), 379-385.

Raphael, B., & Ma. H. (2011). Mass catastrophe and disaster psychiatry. Molecular Psychiatry,  16, 247-251.

Walsh, F. (2002). Bouncing forward: Resilience in the aftermath of September 11. Family Processes, 41, 34-36.


  1. Hello Amy,

    I really like your comments on Post-traumatic Growth. I had written a blog on PTSD and how we can be re-traumatized simply by watching others experience trauma (i.e., watching the events unfold in Japan). It's inspiring to know, though, that traumatic events can also facilitate positive personal growth.

    I will be linking a section in my Trauma blog entry to this one.

    Thanks for this piece,

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