We all face unexpected upheavals in both life and business. Sometimes they're the result of positive news that can nevertheless be a stressful experience, like the birth of a child or a challenging new assignment at work. Other times, they're both traumatic and negative: for example, an illness or a death in the family, the end of a romantic relationship, or the loss of financial and professional security.

Trauma can overwhelm you, but it can also eventually lead to intense personal growth. Much of that hinges on how prepared you are, and how much effort you've put into building the pillars that successful people lean on.

This is about coping with failure as well as tragedy.

I've spent a lot of time with some amazing people as a result of my work, including many who served in the U.S. military, some of whom were wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. I've also had the chance to learn from some of them about how to turn a negative traumatic experience--for example, being severely wounded in combat--into a springboard for positive growth.

This week, three of these U.S. veterans--Army Major D.J. Skelton and veterans Stacy Bare and BriGette McCoy--along with former pro athletes Mike Richter (who won the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers) and former NFL players Harry Carson and Don Davey, will be in New York City to talk about exactly this subject: how to find community, purpose, and growth when everything about the community you've committed yourself to ends.

Post-traumatic growth

I talked with some of them ahead of time about how to turn shock or trauma into opportunity. (The event, called War, Sports, and the Healing Power of Nature, will be held at the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday. Click here for more information.)

The study of post-traumatic growth is relatively new. Traditionally, psychology looked at stress and trauma "through a negative lens, with particular emphasis on post-traumatic stress disorder and the negative health implications," according to one summary.

The idea is that though trauma itself can be negative, the experience of coping with it can lead to better personal relationships, self-confidence, gratitude, and spiritual development.

Four spokes of a wheel

In order to persevere and grow, however, it helps to be able to lean on four relationship pillars:

  • Your relationship with yourself (self-esteem and self-perception);
  • Your relationship with family (either your biological family or the people you've built familial relationships with);
  • Your relationship with the communities you're involved with (any of them, from hobby groups and sports teams to professional communities such as your co-workers and colleagues);
  • Your relationship with the universe (whether this means belief in God, participation in organized religion, or simply a well-thought-out examination of what's the bigger picture).

"Think of them like the spokes of a bicycle wheel," Skelton told me. "If one or two are weak"--especially as a result of a traumatic experience--"that's OK as long as all the other ones are strong. If they, one by one, become weaker, at some point something's got to give. That's what we're trying to prevent."

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