The science of survival

(CBS News) Bouncing back from this month's fiscal crisis is a job for the entire nation. Bouncing back from a personal crisis is a job for the individual, an internal process science is learning more about all the time. Our Cover Story is reported by Susan Spencer of "48 Hours":


Micki Glenn is as delighted as anyone to see a perfect rainbow over the water, but unlike most of us, she is just as delighted to see sharks under the waves.

"They're powerful and graceful," said Glenn. "I mean, they're beautiful, beautiful animals"

Which is why Glenn and her husband, both expert divers, went on a Caribbean scuba expedition 11 years ago photographing sharks.

"They would just slowly cruise around. It was almost like watching horses," she said.

And some were almost as big. On day five, this seven foot female got uncomfortably close.

"Her eye was just maybe eight inches from my eye. And she just hung there, vertically in the water."

Then, she struck.

"She had my whole right upper body in her mouth," Glenn recalled. "So when she whipped back and forth, my forehead would slam the water, and then the back of my head would slam the water."

When the shark suddenly let go, she took a chunk of Glenn's arm and shoulder with her.

"I could see blood everywhere," Glenn said.

"It's unbelievable that you survived," said Spencer.

"It is. It really is. I mean, that's a miracle in itself."

Second miracle: Six surgeries, and a few weeks later, she was back at work!

She had no use of her right hand. She was haunted by flashbacks, but determined to resume normal life, on the farm . . . and, yes, even back in the water.

"Do you consider yourself extraordinarily resilient?" asked Spencer.

"I do now," Glenn replied. "I'm proud of the way that I handled things."

Most of us find ourselves nose-to-nose with sharks only in the safety of an aquarium, which is probably a good thing. But bad things happen on dry land as well, and people bounce back from trauma all the time.

Which raises that age-old question: What about me? Faced with a real crisis, how resilient would I be?

Psychiatrist Dennis Charney says people can train themselves to be more resilient.

Twenty years ago, Dr. Charney -- now dean of Mt. Sinai Medical School -- was researching post-traumatic stress among soldiers. He became fascinated with the resilience of those who didn't have it.

"We came up with a series of factors that seemed to be prevalent in all different populations of people and all different kinds of trauma," Dr. Charney said.

He said that in disasters like 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy, people are more likely to weather the storm when they have strong social support, a strong community. And if there isn't one, real survivors more or less make their own.

This was especially true, he found, among former POWs.

"Many of them are in solitary confinement for years, and they weren't allowed to talk," Dr. Charney said. "So they developed a way of communicating through the wall by tapping on the wall. And the analogy is that everybody needs a 'tap code,' a way of developing a support system and communicating with other people that are going to help them get through tough times."

Even in the toughest times, Charney's POWs shared something else: Unshakeable optimism, another key element of resilience.

"One of the POWs told us, 'We knew we were 8,000 miles away. We knew that nobody was going to come and get us. And we were being held by an enemy. But together, we felt we were going to prevail.'"

Micki Glenn can certainly relate to that. When asked what she tells people who ask about her comeback, Glenn said, "I think, first off, I tell them that I was a person who is generally always happy. And second, I just stumbled on positivity and how powerful it is. That's a big part of it."

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