Excerpt: Comeback by Todd Burnham
Survival Mode: The Ultimate Superpower
As humans, the desire to survive is our most powerful driving force, generating the highest form of focus. We do not experience this level of drive and focus until our own sense of survival is truly threatened, until we hit bottom.
Survival is not about wanting to succeed; it’s about needing to succeed in order to survive. A hunger to succeed won’t get you there, only life-threatening starvation is enough to push you forward. In their minds, people who turn trauma or adversity into success believe that they have no other choice. People who are drowning have zero concerns other than getting back on land. They don’t care about their reputation, finances, or relationships. They are fully focused on a single goal. There are no distractions.
Adversity Breeds Strength
When you’re in the thick of a major life crisis, it can be hard to imagine how such devastation could produce a life better than before. But research1 shows that adversity not only helps us change direction and move towards something greater, but it also makes us stronger and more capable of tackling future stressful situations.
Scars last forever. They create a permanent imprint. And trauma causes significant scarring. In one way or another, we are affected by traumatic situations for the rest of our lives. A majority of those who have come out of trauma thriving would still have preferred that the traumatic event never happened. The goal is not to avoid pain and suffering; that is an impossibility. The goal is to recognize the incredible power of growth that can result from traumatic events, to recognize serious adversity as a tool we can take advantage of and use to harvest immense benefits.
What adversity and trauma do to the mind is similar to what weightlifting does to the body. Lifting heavy weights tears the muscle, literally rips the microfibers, destroys them. “Feel the burn” they say. Weightlifters know they’ve made progress when they feel achy and sore in the days after a workout. During those few days of soreness, the muscle is repairing and rebuilding a larger, more powerful structure–allowing the weightlifter to eventually lift that same heavy weight with ease. Our bodies do not seek to build the torn muscle back to its former state. Instead, our bodies say, okay, some serious heavy lifting is in my environment now; I’d better be able to handle it the next time. So, while the previous muscle ripped and tore under a 100-pound weight, the new muscle thinks 100-pounds is a joke. Bring it on! In response to injury (ripped muscle fibers), the body (1) focuses on repair, and (2) morphs the previous state into a more powerful state.
Our bodies react in the same way with mental stressors. Trauma tears us apart, and our minds repair. Not to the state it was in before the trauma, but into a new and different state that will be able to handle that trauma the next time it comes around. The mind, like the weightlifter’s muscle, is damaged by the trauma. It must rearrange itself into a new form that can handle that level of hardship. This “new form” may manifest as PTSD, severe anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, strength, power, resilience, or newfound optimism. The goal is to learn to manipulate your body and mind to adapt to trauma in a productive and beneficial way. This manipulation begins with one’s ability to (1) recognize they are experiencing severe trauma, (2) recognize the power that lies behind it, and (3) recognize that they will never regain the life they had before the trauma. They are permanently changed.
During or after trauma, many people fail to embrace the all-important third component–that permanent change that trauma induces. Wound repair does not result in the same skin we had before. It is scarred. Torn muscle fibers do not repair to their previous state. They build an amplified, larger, more powerful muscle. And when we are injured by a traumatic event, we are permanently changed.
The biggest mistake I see people make in their journey through a traumatic event is trying to get back what they had before the event occurred. Trying to get their marriage back, their career back, their home, the life they once knew. As with muscle repair, getting back to where you were does not assist survival. We cannot survive if we do not adapt to our surroundings. To overcome serious adversity, we must both repair and change.
Recognizing Rock Bottom
If you’ve picked up this book to learn how to get back what you had, you may want to keep browsing the bookshelves. “But I just want back what I had,” some say. “I don’t want to be more powerful or improved.” That’s fine. It just simply means you haven’t hit rock bottom. Because when you hit bottom, you’ll do anything to get out of it. You are drowning, and you’d easily trade life as you knew it for a chance to get out of the water. True survival mode is an entirely different kind of motivation. If change is necessary to get you there, your mind will be more than willing to make it happen.
For me, a new dad moving to a new state, starting a new career, responsible for not only my own life but now an entire family, the embarrassing courtroom incident was a knockout punch. It stunned me into survival mode, jolting me into immediate action. Burnham Law started in an unfinished basement in 2010. We now have seven offices, over forty attorneys, and nearly 100 employees. Sixty percent of our businesses is from referrals. I consider myself a professional lemonade maker.
When you hit your personal or professional bottom, what you had has disappeared. You have no choice but to create a new future. While you’re doing it, you have to let go of what may happen, or what could happen. You’re going in blind. All you know for certain is that you will become greater than before. It may take a complete career change, an entirely new living situation, you cannot predict what the future holds. In survival mode, none of that matters. Everything is equally impossible, and everything is equally possible. Survival mode opens up options you could never have considered before hitting bottom.
Adversity Prompts Change
The beauty of trauma is that it erects a stop sign in your life. You’re forced to stop and consider other plans. If you live a charmed life where everything flows along smoothly, you will just continue to float along, taking what comes your way. Only when life crashes down around you do you gain the opportunity to learn and grow and rebuild. Trauma is horrific. No one deserves to experience the pain and suffering adversity brings into our lives. But trauma is inevitable for each and every one of us. No one is immune. It is vital that we learn how to capture the power that lies within pain and suffering, that we train our minds to use the traumatic experience in a way that benefits us and those around us.
Trauma Changes Our Brain
The idea that great suffering brings great wisdom isn’t a new one. Buddhists believe suffering is necessary to ethical development and spiritual awareness. In 458 B.C., the Greek playwright Aeschylus emphasized in his play Agamemnon how “wisdom comes alone through suffering” and “he who learns must suffer.” Suffering leads to self-reflection,2 and this kind of intense reflection and focus in turn creates wisdom. Maybe you had an older relative who was all about letting things “toughen you up.” Turns out, they were on the right track.
Research over the past few decades is beginning to map out more specifically how adversity and trauma alter the human brain. For example, scientists have determined that the prefrontal cortex region of the brain (responsible for executive functions like memory, planning, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and abstract reasoning) undergoes physical change with trauma.3 That trauma that feels like it physically ripped your heart out? It makes a permanent mark on your brain too. It changes how you think. You’ll never be the same.
According to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte,4 trauma triggers post-traumatic growth (PTG) and positive psychological changes caused by a major life crisis. Studies found that PTG affects five general areas of human functioning.
- First, serious adverse events increase empathy, the ability to identify with others’ hardships, inevitably leading to stronger relationships. When we have experienced the worst possible scenario in our own life, we are better able to understand how other people feel when they deal with adversity. This allows us to bond more strongly with others.
- Second, people who have experienced a major life crisis show an increased ability to detect opportunities and paths that were not previously visible. Rock bottom kicks us into survival mode, prompting us to seek ALL possible solutions and paths forward.
- Third, trauma induces an increased sense of strength–a feeling of “now I can get through ANYTHING.” We develop a newfound confidence. The more difficult times we live through, the better equipped we feel to take on whatever else comes. In a way, it’s like building job skills. The more problems we deal with in our jobs, the better we become at them. The more struggles we deal with in life, the better we become at life.
- Fourth, trauma can induce a greater appreciation for life in general. Once we’ve hit our rock bottom, we can see the good stuff in our lives more clearly and are more grateful to have the people, things, and experiences that make us happy and support us. This in turn makes it easier for us to rebuild after each successive trauma that we experience.
- Finally, study participants who had experienced a major life crisis exhibited some change or deepening in spirituality. Going through challenging events tends to make people become more spiritual. Spirituality, as will be discussed in a later chapter, is not religion. It is a deeper understanding of ourselves that can help us develop a more positive and realistic mindset as we move forward out of trauma.
Additionally, studies out of the University of British Columbia found that adults who experienced a major trauma, like divorce, death of a spouse, life-altering illness, or injury, showed a higher capacity for enjoying life’s simple pleasures, promoting greater life satisfaction. Importantly, this benefit was seen among participants of all personality traits–meaning it can happen to anyone.5
These are very important impacts. Trauma makes us better able to connect to people and imagine paths forward. It makes us stronger and better able to appreciate life. You could say that people who survive trauma develop superpowers. The terrible, painful trauma we experience happens for a reason. Recognizing this is vital to harnessing the greatness that can result. Of course, none of us drowning in a traumatic event can see things this way. You feel like you simply do not have the strength to even get out of bed. Keep reading. You do!
Knockouts Create Champions
Researchers at SUNY Buffalo6 studying the effects of trauma found that, in addition to empathy and PTG, a major life crisis can build self-efficacy, a confidence in our ability to successfully deal with challenges. Getting through hard things makes us feel better able to handle whatever else life throws at us. Because we dealt with something awful, we know we can get through something else that is difficult. Just as our body rebuilds muscle to handle more weight, our brain changes to handle additional adversity.
This is the basis behind exposure therapy7 where we cure a phobia by doing the terrifying act. For example, people afraid of public speaking who force themselves to speak in public eventually overcome their disabling fear. People afraid of heights who practice climbing ladders (starting with one step and gradually climbing taller and taller ladders) eventually reduce their fear of heights to manageable levels. They gradually train their brains to realize that standing in a high place does not cause injury.
Exposure therapy is not about throwing someone afraid of water into the pool, but gradually exposing them to it by talking about it, thinking about it, imagining being in the water, being near water, putting a toe in, then a foot, and so on. Trauma recovery works in this same gradual way. As we experience difficulties in life, we create new viewpoints, emerging more confident and resilient than before.
The same study also found that adversity and trauma improve our ability to see the silver lining, the hidden good inside a difficult situation. Trauma changes our brains to interpret stress as a challenge rather than a threat, causing a different choice in the fight or flight response. Instead of wanting to run, a person who was previously exposed to a traumatic event will face future stressful situations with boosted energy, focus, efficiency, resources, confidence, concentration, performance, and satisfaction. Sign me up!
PTG vs. Resilience
Because post-traumatic growth (PTG) induces change, researchers consider PTG and resilience (the ability to withstand difficult things) as two very different responses to trauma. For decades, psychologists have considered resilience to be the best protection against post-traumatic stress disorder. But more recent research indicates that resilience merely allows us to repair and recover to the level we started at. For those with low resilience, PTG tends to emerge, not only repairing you, but rebuilding you into a stronger, more powerful being.
In a study of veterans who developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychologist Jack Tsai of the Yale School of Medicine found that8 you cannot fix what isn’t broken. People who have high resilience are not broken by adversity; they are less affected by trauma and therefore less likely to develop PTG. They don’t grow mentally bigger and stronger. More resilient people were more likely to develop debilitating PTSD. Less resilient people were less likely. Traumatic experiences are more painful for those with low resilience, but this increase in pain produces more PTG and greater future success.
Resilience gives us the strength to withstand difficult things, but it can prevent growth and change. If we are not broken by a traumatic event, we will not change and grow in response to it. If strong winds blow one shingle off your roof, you simply replace it. If a storm takes a chunk of your roof with it, you have no choice but to get a whole new roof, one that is inevitably newer, better, and stronger than the old one.
This is the moment where you get to pat yourself on the back for hitting rock bottom. Resilience is great, but it’s not what you need right now. Falling apart is exactly what you need for your brain to grow and change and allow you to build a life that is immensely better than what you had before. The more resilient we are, the less likely we are to experience profound change. You know you have reached rock bottom when you lack resilience (another silver lining to the pain and suffering associated with trauma).
Tragedy Is Not Comparable
You may have heard of the Holmes-Rahe Life Events Stress Scale.9 This is a chart that ranks the stressors (divorce, death of a spouse, losing a job, moving, etc.) a person might encounter in life by their severity. The idea is that some life events create more stress than others, and if you tally up a high score for events that happened in your life in the last year, you’ve experienced a lot of stress and are more susceptible to illness because of it. The scale, by its very nature, seeks to compare and rate hard things. This can be helpful if you’re feeling stressed but aren’t sure why. In that situation, it can be useful to give you an indicator that you’ve gone through a lot and you should take care with your health.
However, this is not helpful when you are at rock bottom. Do not try to rank your trauma by comparing it to trauma you have experienced or to the experiences of others. Any therapist will tell you that pain is not comparable. If two old friends meet up on a park bench to catch up after not seeing each other for ten years and one says my wife died and I have cancer, and the other says my son died and my wife had a stroke, who is in more grief and pain? You can’t compare the two situations. Each person is suffering in their own way. We cannot comprehend the situation another person is in and thus cannot compare our lives to others.
Hitting rock bottom is always a score of one hundred on the life stress scale. Whatever your rock bottom is, you are at a one hundred. Overdosing might be one person’s rock bottom, while getting a DUI could be someone else’s. Both can be life-changing, serious, traumatic events. Both people are forever altered by the experience.
Your current rock bottom situation is also completely relative to your current life situation. Say you’ve worked your entire education to become a lawyer and have failed the bar exam. You are experiencing a massive trauma. At this moment in your life, it’s the worst possible thing you can imagine. But two years later, once you’ve finally passed the bar on your third try and have a great job at a law firm, you may look back and realize, “Yeah, that was a really dark time for me, but I ended up getting some incredible tools that boosted my career out of studying for that damn thing three times.” At the time, it was the worst-case scenario. Your life was over. But your future self sees it as the complete opposite.
If your current situation feels like a rock bottom moment, it’s OK to treat it as one. But keep your future self in mind. Your brain is getting stronger. You are developing survival skills. You are going to see opportunities in life that were previously invisible to you.
Naturally, we will all hit a rock bottom several times in our lives–each rock bottom seeming like the worst. As we age, we are able to look back and pinpoint certain events that truly altered our lives. But in the moment, each rock bottom is rock bottom. My mother died on April 27, 2021. It was the greatest pain I ever felt. One year later I’ve written a book inspired by her life. Each individual incident is its own worst-case scenario, and each is something we must rebound from in a more powerful form. Once you climb out of that hole (and you will), you will be a changed individual, able to impact the lives of those around you in new ways and better fulfill your purpose for this whole strange journey.
Denial is Temporary
Denial10 is a reflex our brains use to protect us. It buys us time to process, absorb, and cope with stressful situations. It keeps us from collapsing under the weight of the trauma. Just as adrenaline numbs pain for a period of time after injury, allowing us to protect others or get to a safe place, denial allows us to continue to function until our mind is able to process the event and formulate a plan.
If you’ve ever lost someone you loved, you may remember simply feeling numb when it happened. For the first week, some will even continue to act as if nothing happened, going to work, answering emails, going out with friends. Research has shown that the mind even makes up stories, telling us the loved one has just gone on a trip, it’s just temporary, they’ll be back soon, it’s just a bad dream. Denial is our brain’s way of protecting us from the magnitude of the loss, allowing us to adapt more gradually. People who lose a limb often report that they can still feel their absent limb or had no sensation of the injury at all initially. Denial is an automatic, protective response that is useful in immediate crisis.
By the time you’ve picked up this book, though, your trauma is likely not a fresh wound. It’s no longer something you can ignore. You’ve reached a point where you know you need to deal with it, and you cannot fathom a way out of the pain. When denial wears off, you know it is time to be brutally honest with yourself about where you’re at. You open your eyes and admit just how bad the situation actually is. Rose-colored glasses are not going to help you. You must be able to examine your trauma in the cold hard light of day. See it for what it is and understand the impact it is going to have on your life. Knowledge, as always, is power.
That can be hard. And it can hurt. In the later stages of denial, you will tell yourself things aren’t really all that bad. If you’re still doing that, it’s time to stop. If you have difficulty embracing the traumatic experience for what it is, it can be helpful to sit down and write out exactly what has happened and what it means. The specifics on how life has changed as you know it. Confront it. See it. Absorb it. In doing so, you will feel your survival instincts begin to emerge.
It is also at this point that you will sense your level of resilience. Understand that this book is not intended as a replacement for mental health care. If you suffer from serious clinical depression, suicidal ideation, or other debilitating mental health issues, you will need to contact outside help before moving forward. See list of resources in the Appendix.
Note that you should not blame yourself for where you are or beat yourself up for ending up in this situation. As humans, we all struggle with the pain that results from mistakes, bad decisions, and accidents. I am just asking that you see the situation and accept it for what it is. Because the reality of your situation fuels the drive to make change.
Those who have attended Alcoholics Anonymous will know the organization teaches that being honest with yourself and others, admitting the truth, is the crucial first step to recovery. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.”11 Similarly, Step One to your Comeback requires being honest about your life, whether your current situation is effed up enough to scare you into action. Learn to completely embrace just how bad things are. This can be painful to do, especially if you’ve been able to maintain some denial. But now is the time to rip off your blinders and look your dumpster fire straight in the face. See it, feel it, breathe it, then USE it to push you up and into a new future.
Remarkable Rebounds: Tim Allen
“When I went to jail, reality hit so hard that it took my breath away, took my stance away, took my strength away.”12
Before Tim Allen was a famous comedian, he was a drug dealer. Allen’s father died when he was 11, spiraling Allen into alcoholism and bad behavior as a teen and college student that ended when he was arrested in 1978 for dealing cocaine. He was sentenced to seven years in jail and served a little over two years. This was his rock bottom moment. He saw what prison was and did not want that for his future. Prison changed his life and his mindset. He started making other prisoners laugh. He saw that as his path forward. After his release he began working as a stand-up comic and built a career which took off with a hit network TV show (Home Improvement). Allen is now worth $100 million.
- Seery, Mark D., E. Alison Holman, and Roxane Cohen Silver. "Whatever does not kill us: cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience." J Pers Soc Psychol. 99.6 (2010): 1025.
- Brady MS. Why Suffering Is Essential to Wisdom. September 2019. J. Val. Inq. 53(3).
- Nakagawa, S., Sugiura, M., Sekiguchi, A. et al. Effects of post-traumatic growth on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex after a disaster. Sci Rep 6, 34364 (2016).
- Tedeschi RG, Calhoun LG. Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychol. Inq. 2004;15:1–18.
- Croft A, Dunn EW, Quoidbach J. From Tribulations to Appreciation: Experiencing Adversity in the Past Predicts Greater Savoring in the Present. Soc. Psychol. Pers. Sci. 2014;5(5):511-516.
- Seery MD, Holman EA, Silver RC. Whatever does not kill us: cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010 Dec;99(6):1025-41.
- Institute of Medicine. Treatment of PTSD: An assessment of the evidence. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2007.
- Tsai J, Mota NP, Southwick SM, Pietrzak RH. (2016). What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: A national study of U.S. military veterans. J. Affect. Dis., 189, 269–271.
- Holmes TH, Rahe RH. The social readjustment rating scale. J. Psychosom. Res. 1967;11:213–218.
- McFarlane, A.C. (2000). On the Social Denial of Trauma and the Problem of Knowing the Past. In: Shalev, A.Y., Yehuda, R., McFarlane, A.C. (eds) International Handbook of Human Response to Trauma. Springer Series on Stress and Coping. Springer, Boston, MA.
- Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. 4th ed., Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2002.
- Fussman C. Tim Allen: What I've Learned. Esquire. Oct 11, 2011