"Life DOESN’T work, until you DO." Latesha summarized a valuable lesson she had learned from a recent encounter with adversity.

We laughed together, struck by Latesha’s ability to communicate wisdom so simply and elegantly.

"Do you know what you just did?" I asked her. "You demonstrated, once again, that you have the gift of perspective. You just taught me something about life."

Latesha had earned this wisdom. Six months ago, she had shut down in response to panic attacks that occurred several times a day. She had become so affrighted of life that she took short-term disability from her job. Her life activities at that point were limited to lying in bed, watching television in her ten by twelve foot bedroom. When Latesha became alarmed at how small her life was growing, she rallied her inner resources of her personal strength, as well strengths of persons in her support system, to escape the four walls of her bedroom.

Character Strengths

Today, we were celebrating Letesha’s strengths—strengths she had even before the panic had stifled her good ability to function. One of the talents was "perspective"—a wisdom skill enabling her to understand life and explain it in a way that made sense to self and others.

She had employed other of her talents in her recovery, as well, such as:

* Curiosity—taking interest in discovering and exploring what one can learn from experience.
* Love of Learning—going beyond experience to add to one’s learning by systemically studying new opportunities for knowledge
* Self-Regulation—using inner resources to regulate what one feels and does
* Appreciation of Excellence—the ability to recognize and appreciate excellence and skilled performance (in this case her own)

Too often, cultural stigma prevails when we speak of matters of mental health and mental illness. Persons whose functioning or moods are impaired by a psychiatric condition are too often viewed by others as though they had only one dimension in their life: the sickness. Latesha could have adopted that one dimensional view and given up on herself. After all, the fear that she was going crazy was one of the unrealistic thoughts she had when she had a panic attack.

The fact is, she was not going crazy. It was only panic attacks. The strength to overcome came from her character—healthy mental habits she had practiced throughout her life. The panic symptoms came from mental processes embodied within tissue and neural networks that are vulnerable to disrepair.

What are Your Character Strengths?

Since the early 1990’s, the study of mental health has included studying what traits allow people to maintain fulfilling relationships, cope successfully with adversity, and lead productive lives. An important milestone in the study of strengths occurred in 2004, with the publication of Character Strengths and Virtues by Peterson and Seligman. Often referred to as the "CSV", it was the first attempt to classify character strengths and virtues in the same manner that symptoms are classified in the better known psychiatric publication, The Diagnostic and Statistcal Manual of Mental Disorders (referred to commonly as the DSM-IV). Virtually every therapist and psychiatrist has a DSM IV in their desk; but few have copies of the CSV. We need to change that!

A summary of the character strengths that Peterson and Seligman’s research team was able to identify can be found on the Values in Action website, the institute sponsoring Peterson and Seligman’s research. The URL is www.viacharacter.org/. You can find a list of the strengths on the site, as well as a survey you can take that will show you which of the strengths are in your treasure chest.


Author's Bio: 

Katrina Holgate Miller, PhD writes about the strengths and skills people use to face their mental health issues with empowerment (moxie) rather than victimization.

She has turned her 30+ years of clinical experience with thousands of clients into stories and tips about how her clients were able to recover from mental illness and addiction and return to the roles they enjoyed during times of wellness. She is author of the website www.moxiementalhealth.com. Her email is katrina@moxiementalhealth.com