Resilience as Path
Did you know that only 8% of individuals exposed to trauma develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Most people respond with resilience and some report feeling stronger or having grown in some way in response to the traumatic event. PTSD develops when your natural adaptive capacity to respond to a traumatic event isn’t accessible. This can leave you feeling stuck, panicked, or hopeless. If this is you, it is not your fault and you have not failed. There are a variety of reasons why some people are more susceptible to PTSD. These include lack of relational support systems, genetics, intensity of the experience, duration of exposure, and early life experiences. However, with sufficient support most people do recover from PTSD.
“Resilience involves practices that you can actively engage in to strengthen your likelihood of recovery from trauma.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Resilience as a Process
Following trauma exposure most people experience frightening and uncomfortable emotions and sensations such as grief, fear, anxiety, panic, anger, or depression. The memory of the event encompasses a range of physiological and psychological aspects that can be hard to handle. Being resilient does not mean that we don’t experience difficulty or distress. In fact, these emotions and sensations are part of your natural resiliency as your body and mind process the experience.
Untreated PTSD: A Downward Spiral
Many of us are afraid of the intensity of big emotions and want to shut these feelings down. Here is a hypothetical example of the downward spiral of untreated PTSD:
A woman tragically lost her husband 2 years ago in a car accident. She had two children that depended upon her and a job that she couldn’t afford to lose. She was in shock initially but she learned how to cope by compartmentalizing her feelings to make it through the day. She managed debilitating feelings of panic on her own and would end each day feeling exhausted and depleted. Over time her fatigue increased and she started to feel that the actions of daily living, such as going to the grocery store, showing up at work, or parenting children, to be nearly impossible. She began to self-medicate with caffeine and sugar to keep herself going during the day and a glass or two of wine at night to help her wind down. When this wasn’t enough she turned to her doctor who prescribed her anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills which kept her afloat but she often felt flattened and depressed.
This is a painfully common downward spiral that can often be averted with appropriate knowledge and support.
The healing process involves getting sufficient support to tolerate emotional distress and ultimately help your body and mind recognize that the event is over; that you are safe now. Research suggests that the most beneficial support that we can have during the initial phase of an acute trauma reaction is the loving support of other people who can be with us during the distress (Coan, 2006).
Furthermore, your resilience is better supported by avoiding ongoing use of benzodiazepine anti-anxiety medications after trauma exposure. While some short term use may be necessary, this class of medications suppresses physiological and psychological processes necessary for healthy adaptation to trauma exposure and increases the likelihood of the development of post traumatic stress syndrome, prolonging the healing process (read more here).
Resilience as a Practice
Over the years resiliency researchers have looked at the traits associated with individuals who have not only overcome obstacles but have even thrived in the face of them. Studies identify resilience behaviors can be learned and developed in anyone (e.g. The Hardiness Institute, Dr. Maddi; Resiliency factors, Dr. Ginsberg). This means that there are practices that we can engage in that can strengthen our resilience both in recovery from past trauma exposure or as a general buffer as we navigate the challenges in our unpredictable world. Offered here are several take-home strategies to build your resilience:
- Make connections: Seek out and actively build your social circle. Stay involved rather than isolating. Challenge yourself to make the phone calls, reach out, and go to social events. If needed seek psychotherapy. You do not need to go through this alone and what you cannot handle on your own can be overcome together.
- Express yourself: Talk about or write about the vulnerable or painful emotions. Research indicates wide ranging health benefits after writing about stressful life events (Dr. Pennebaker). Paint your emotions, dance it out, become a poet, make music, listen to music. Don’t worry that it looks or sounds good for anyone else; It is the process not the product that is important.
- Practice acceptance, change what you can: Like the well known serenity prayer, accepting circumstances that cannot be changed will help you focus on the situations that you do have choice and control over. The belief that with effort, you can influence the course of your life is one of the factors most associated with resiliency.
- Look for opportunities to grow: We have all heard the aphorism “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Research suggests that this maxim is a core mindset of resilient individuals. This is the belief that growth and wisdom are gained from challenge and that life, whether positive or negative, provides opportunities for new learning. Explore how difficult life events have strengthened you. How have you grown as a result of your struggles in life?
- Get back to basics: Exercise regularly. Eat well. Sleep. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find nourishing.
Resilience-Informed Trauma treatment
Resilience-Informed trauma treatment applies research on resilience to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. In brief, successful therapy involves:
- Reviewing the traumatic event in a safe manner through EMDR and Somatic Trauma interventions
- Tolerating difficult emotions with support
- Helping you build trust in your capacity for healing
- Empowering you to take an active role in your wellness
As human beings we can all get “stuck” sometimes. There is no need to feel ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help. With sufficient support, we can reframe our relationship to pain as the invitation to enter the hero’s or heroine’s journey. We embrace the ghost of the past, become less defined by our history, and have greater to choice about our future. Resilience-informed trauma treatment recognizes that when you are supported you are able to access your creativity, strength, and your capacity to handle life’s challenges.
More on Resilience:
- Raising Resilient Children
- Awareness of Trans-Generational Trauma Facilitates Resilience
- Video interview of Dr. Schwartz on Resilience
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.