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Finding Personal Growth After a Midlife Crisis

By midlife many of us will be tested by a traumatic life event. What makes some of us bounce back stronger than ever?

Alice Graham mid life jolt mississippi

Hurricane Katrina had an unexpected impact on Alice Graham. — Chris Crisman

Post-traumatic growth turns into altruism

Alice Graham had her life's work similarly altered by a traumatic event. In her case, it was a literal disaster — Hurricane Katrina. The storm destroyed not her home, however, but her long-held conviction about the state of Mississippi.

In 2005, Graham arrived in Ocean Springs, a small city along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, with seven students from Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, North Carolina, where she was a professor. Graham was 62, and it was the first time she'd set foot in Mississippi, a state whose legacy of racism had long haunted her. She was 9 when 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. To an African American girl in Till's hometown of Chicago, "it was a pivotal experience in the way I related to the South," Graham says. "At that point, I made a commitment that I would never go to Mississippi."

But now Graham was troubled by what was going on in Mississippi after Katrina. She organized a course that offered students the chance to participate in a weeklong relief trip. En route to the Gulf Coast, old fears came flooding back. "We were driving down in the van, and I suddenly realized, 'I'm going to Mississippi.' I was very anxious about it, because I was bringing black and white students."

At a restaurant filled with white patrons, the hostess noticed the group's disaster-relief identification tags and asked where the visitors were from. "When we told her that we'd come down to volunteer, she announced that to the restaurant," Graham says. "And the entire place applauded. That broke the myth that I had been living with. It's a moment where you're caught, and time stops. I realized that my mind-set no longer was real."

Graham took early retirement at 64 and moved to the Gulf Coast. Today, at 68, she's executive director of Interfaith Partnerships, a nonprofit that works on disaster preparedness and poverty relief. "I certainly never would have looked at moving to Mississippi under any circumstance. That just wasn't on my radar — and neither was running a grassroots community organization," she says. "What amazes me most is that I seem to do it well, and it is profoundly satisfying."

Post-traumatic growth frequently takes altruistic forms, says Calhoun. It's one of the several factors he and his colleagues have identified among those who undergo PTG. Another such factor: recognizing new priorities in your life. That describes the jolt Andrew Revkin suffered while jogging on July Fourth weekend in 2011.

Next page: Become a better version of yourself. »

BOUNCING BACK, BETTER

Try these four tips to boost your recovery.

1. Don't rush it. Take time after a shock, says Susan Bridges, president of William Bridges and Associates, which provides transition coaching: "We see it as a three-phase process, starting with acknowledging what has ended."

2. Consult others. Richard Leider of AARP's Life Reimagined suggests assembling a sounding board of friends as advisers. "You want a committed listener, who can just hear what you have to say without trying to fix anything," he says. "Then you want a catalyst, who offers inspiration through his or her own story. And then you want a wise elder, who helps you keep your eye on the big picture."

3. Think positive. "Whether people can access positive emotions in dire circumstances is typically a matter of what kind of sense they make of the event," says psychologist Barbara Fredrickson. "The reaction to a natural disaster could be 'I lost everything,' or it could be 'I'm still breathing.' "

4. Recognize your own strengths. "People say that they now experience themselves as a different person," says psychologist Lawrence Calhoun. "They see themselves as more vulnerable than they thought but stronger than they ever imagined."

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