Emerging from a crisis

High-water marks are how we can see where floods have previously raised the waterways. You may have seen them: large ruler-like things sticking out of rivers or creeks, with either measurements, dates, or a combination of both. These markers remind us of how things were and reinforce our knowledge of the resilience of the land and of the people who make it their home. They are tangible reminders of moments that challenged (but didn’t destroy) the communities that they impacted. You can probably guess where I’m going with this…

The past few years have been an excellent opportunity to remark on our own standing as a community. COVID-19 and the fallout from several lockdowns and other measures to try to keep us safe, have left indelible psychological and emotional ‘high-water marks’ on many people.

However, when reflecting on our personal histories, many of us can begin to recognise the high-water marks in our own lives, independent of this current pandemic. One of several moments stand out in my mind.

It was hot, that oppressive kind of heat you get in the transitional months when one calendar year ends and another begins. It was late, balmy, and I could barely hear anything above the loud whoosh-thud of my heartbeat screaming into my senses. I was sure my nose was oozing blood. My vision blurred and a creeping vignette started to cloud the corners of my existence. My breath was shallow, rapid and raspy. I turned from one of my increasingly alarmed friends to another, tears streaming down my face, with a brain having several hundred incredibly loud thoughts at once. “Help me,” I managed to barely choke out.

It was my first panic attack, and I thought I was dying.

This moment changed the trajectory of my life. It was the wake-up call I needed to recognise some of the unhealthy mental habits I had developed following a similar high-water mark – a close family member’s attempted suicide (another example of a highly emotional situation that can profoundly impact those involved) and subsequently not properly handling how it had affected me. Several years and health professionals later, I am in a considerably better place with a wealth of learning under my belt. On reflection, this period of emotional turbulence is likely one I had to experience to develop the skills required to live my life with more joy, less generalised concern and a deeper sense of empathy and connection.

The initial chronic anxiety diagnosis provided shortly after my first panic attack was still a surprise, despite a related diagnosis of acute, periodic depression being given many years prior. The lightbulb moment that this triggered caused me to cast my mind back to several early physiological warning signs – itchy palms, clenched jaw, excessive sweating, poor sleep, jitteriness – that pointed to an underlying and pervasive mental health condition, related to but pointedly different from the several depressive episodes experienced previously and up to the present day.

Effectively, despite the prior high-water marks in my life, I was unprepared for the extent of this one. In the quest to ‘build back better’, however, I became increasingly reflective of the moments that had resulted in profound change. Unrecognised at the time, these high-water marks of life had continued to raise my internal resilience, adding higher notches on the measure of what I could sustain and my capacity for growth in the face of adversity. I also discovered that most people had shared experiences; emotionally turbulent periods that had resulted in a deeper self-understanding and internal growth.

Extrapolating this experience out, the concept of Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) becomes increasingly relevant and fascinating. PTG, a concept developed by Dr Richard Tedeschi and Professor Lawrence Calhoun, explains the positive psychological change that results from a struggle with highly challenging or traumatic life circumstances. Experiencing such an event can have a transformational impact on an individual’s personality and facilitate growth. Dr Tedeschi describes five types of PTG:

  • The exploration of new possibilities;
  • Recognition of previously unknown personal strengths;
  • Improved interpersonal relationships;
  • Increased appreciation for life/living; and
  • Spiritual growth (ie. meaning and purpose).

It’s important to note that the types of growth listed are not mutually exclusive but can also take considerable time and focus to achieve. However, given the right amount of time to process, most of us are fully capable of realising PTG.

For me, the PTG experience fell into the category of the exploration of new possibilities and an increased appreciation for life/living. Recognising the underlying anxiety that fuelled the energy spikes and drops I had experienced, often prior to depressive episodes, allowed me to better self-regulate these feelings as they arose. By focussing on the physiological signs, I could get a better sense of when I was on the cusp of a moment of high anxiety or stress and actively work to reduce its impacts. Eventually, I was able to feel the heat of the redness creeping up my neck to my face, a key sign of an impending wave of anxiety, and instead change my focus to breathing and my surroundings, practicing a little ‘mindfulness’ to slow the synaptic chain reaction occurring in my brain. Now, the level of emotion-driven assumptions I make are significantly less, depressive episodes are shorter and occur with greater time between them and my day-to-day anxiety has reduced.

However, PTG is not an isolated concept. In the book ‘A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness’, Nassir Ghaemi hypothesises that bouts of acute mental illness (in particular) can radically influence leadership capabilities, particularly of political or military leaders throughout history, in times of crisis. Ghaemi details how Abraham Lincoln’s extensive bouts of ‘melancholy’ had caused him to show greater empathy in the wake of a devastating civil war. Empathy was required for this moment in time and may have been instrumental in such outcomes as the Emancipation Declaration, among others.

Do not be mistaken, the hypothesis is not ‘mental illness makes for better leaders’. The thinking is that periods of mental illness give individuals the opportunity to engage in PTG, while also raising their awareness of (or empathy for) the ‘feelings’ associated with these experiences; be they grief, melancholy, joy, anxiety or loneliness. Namely, a depth of understanding of these emotions can give a leader a deeper toolkit to relate to, and thus motivate, the people they lead. It can be argued that a leader who has experienced hopelessness may be better equipped to articulate hope, and a leader with experience in anxiety may be better equipped to ease it in others, but these are not guarantees. One thing is clear, however; almost half of all Australians aged 16–85 have experienced (or will experience) a mental illness in their lifetime , so while not all leaders will experience mental ill-health, almost all leaders will be expected to lead a person who has.

The urgency in which Australian business leaders need to educate themselves on mental health cannot be made clearer. Fortunately, access to quality resources about this topic are abundant. R U OK? Day is one, BeyondBlue another, and there are countless organisations and web-based resources. I implore all people, not just leaders or potential leaders, to understand the topic to better help those who need it.

There isn’t a ‘cure’ for the anxiety and depression that I wrestle with. I can, however, now measure the fact that I experience these issues less and have a greater resiliency to them when they do occur. PTG has helped me to recognise that I am capable of handling these experiences, learning from them and continuing to grow with new skills, perspectives and approaches to life.

History may not call upon us to heal a nation, win a battle or convert the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens, but it does call on us to answer this moment in time with its own unique set of challenges. COVID-19, climate change, inequality – these are just three examples of the types of global ‘trauma’ we all can, and must, experience growth from. Looking to my colleagues, I am perpetually impressed when I watch Hames Sharley design for communities, as we are so conscious of reflecting the collection of lived experiences that make up said community. The experiences of our staff contribute to their own empathy and understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by our fellow humans. It’s this experience, combined with the above understanding of the capacity for growth we all share, that fills me with the absolute confidence that we can face any challenge ahead, together.

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