What is resilience and how does it relate to trauma?
Resilience involves facing a significant threat that has the potential to produce negative outcomes and yet it always involves a positive outcome. This century seems to have shifted in its approach to understanding trauma. In fact it offers a more positive and hopeful lens that I believe the average person who deals with loss, pain or tragedy can relate to. Most individuals have experienced or will experience some degree of trauma during their life-time; whether it is experiencing emotional or physical violence in their personal relationships, death resulting from a natural disaster or losing loved ones through unexpected tragedy. Our experience connected to different events is unique to each person, and what one individual may perceive as extremely disturbing another may in fact find relatively easy to cope with.
Regardless resilient responses to trauma are much more common than most of us believe and in fact it does not necessarily take super human effort or ability to endure a trauma and prevail favorably. Ann Masten (2001) refers to how underestimated resilient responses are among average people; and she coins the term ordinary magic (2001) to refer to the average person coping well with traumatic events. However this does not mean that people do not experience very real and debilitating effects however one should simultaneously recognize resilient responses, and work to elicit those inner strengths.
This resilient model points towards most people bouncing back to their previous levels of functioning with shorter term disturbances in normal functioning and only with minor symptoms. Over the years I have been inspired by stories of resilience. Many of my clients have survived childhood experiences laced with emotional, sexual or physical violence or with parental neglect or have coped with the unexpected death of a child or of a partner. Other clients have shared themes of living in a series of violent and emotionally controlling relationships. However most of these clients were still coping with their every- day lived reality; they were parenting, developing friendship circles or were involved in careers. People are innately resilient and are able, with some supports, to heal. Possibly our medical models may have over- pathologized normal reactions to trauma, as resilience is a common and healthy response to trauma (Bonnano, 2004).
In fact Tedeschi and Calhoun (2003) coined the term post traumatic growth which highlights how one can ultimately grow as a result of their trauma; they can make meaning or purpose out of their suffering. Resilience literature is closely related to Post Traumatic Growth literature as the person has not only bounced back to their original state of functioning but they may even grow to a higher level of connecting to themselves and to their world.
What makes someone more resilient or more able to bounce back from trauma than others?
Although certain people have certain traits that contribute to a higher level of resilience there are many other components involved and we must not regard resilience as primarily dependent on inner strength. Buckner (2003) states that one can link resilience to the number of traumas and chronic stressors in a person’s life. For example a person who has experienced one isolated incident, such as a single armed robbery may probably have higher resiliency than an individual living with long term, ongoing violence in her life situation. Other inner resilient qualities are positive self images, an optimistic outlook, a sense of humour, the ability to problem solve an easy going nature, an adaptable or flexible temperament and finally the ability to regulate emotions and impulses (Masten, 2001). In fact according to Buckner (2003) self regulation (the ability to control thinking, emotion and behaviour) is a powerful predictor of resilience. This keeps us centered as we encounter events. For example a client described that during a home invasion she was able to control her thinking and envision the “big picture and see the perpetrators leaving (her) alive, see herself having a family and becoming a successful lawyer”. Other invaluable protective systems that increase resilience are close relationships with family and friends, supportive parenting, having a positive, warm and structured culture within the home as well as feeling part of a community is also a factor in bouncing back from trauma.
Also I have found that most people tend to cope better when they are able to find some purpose in their pain or make sense of their suffering. Victor Frankl (2011), a psychiatrist and a survivor of the Nazi death camps argues that a will to meaning is a basic motivating force in people’s life. He says it creates a sense of purpose and direction to sustain one through challenges; that finding meaning in suffering allows us to transcend our present challenge and look toward a bigger purpose. Trauma can be a catalyst in redefining ones basic life assumptions and in redefining ones identity. In my work with people I have seen how trauma can shatter ones purpose and life goals, and how it can create a perception of life as meaningless. However most people are innately motivated to restore some sense of purpose and direction in their life; the latter being the reason why they seek out my services. Working with clients in making- meaning from suffering usually involves finding peripheral benefits or unexpected positive outcomes. A client for example, made sense out of her sons tragic car accident by seeing it as a divine plan and thus using it to infuse her with a renewed appreciation of life and thus became involved in peer support groups and advocacy around loss. It also gave her a new perspective by focusing more on love and friendships, rather than prior to the tragedy when she focused more on materialistic gain.
This ability to grow from suffering is a form of post traumatic growth (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 2003) where although initially people show stress-related symptoms, most eventually recover and demonstrate personal growth. Tedeschi and Calhoun (2003) found that reports of growth experiences following traumatic events outnumber reports of psychiatric disorders. They listed these categories of change to include improved relationships, new possibilities for one’s life, a greater appreciation for life; a greater sense of personal strength as well as spiritual development. Many of my clients over the years for example have shared mixed narratives relating to trauma- on the one hand the anxiety, pain or loss involved with their tragedy, yet on the other hand they simultaneously have a greater appreciation of life or feel stronger as a result of their experiences. I always view each person as having the resilience and inner strength to overcome their challenges and ultimately heal, however a crucial part of the healing process is to help someone find a reason to get up the morning or a purpose to live. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche (cited in Frankl, 2011, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”. Our task is not merely to survive, but to find the meaning specific to ourselves and our unique situation which can sometimes be revealed in suffering.
If you need supports to heal from a tragedy, loss or trauma please do not hesitate to contact me.
Lauren Kalvari (MSW., RSW)
Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events?. American psychologist, 59(1), 20.
Buckner, J. C., Mezzacappa, E., & Beardslee, W. R. (2003). Characteristics of resilient youths living in poverty: The role of self-regulatory processes. Development and psychopathology, 15(1), 139-162.
Frankl, V. E. (2011). Man's search for ultimate meaning. Random House.
Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American psychologist, 56(3), 227.
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). " Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence". Psychological inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.