Resilience and Healing from Trauma

Consider a tree in a storm as a metaphor for healing from trauma. The tree has several options:

  • Withstand the storm by staying firmly upright and trying not to budge in the wind
  • Bend in the storm so as not to be uprooted by the wind and, after the storm is over, snap back to its usual upright position
  • Bend in the storm and, as a result of bending, reshape itself after the storm

What is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to recover from and, perhaps, grow as a result of trauma and pain. There are several ways in which the human organism can do this.

The first tree that held it’s ground during the storm is a manifestation of the “stiff upper lip” attitude towards trauma and stress. In the Western culture it is not uncommon to hear “just get through it” or “soldier on.” We tend to conceptualize resilience as the ability to be unperturbed by our experiences and simply withstand pain. As you can probably imagine, the risk that we run in doing this is that our tree, with its inflexibility, looses branches or even becomes uprooted in gale force winds.

The second tree is an example of recovery. Like most trees, it bends to the wind and snaps back like a rubber band when the storm has passed. For this tree, a stressor is disruptive at the moment that it happens and then is quickly forgotten. Our tree has not learned anything from the experience and also has not lost anything. Chances are this was not a very severe storm.

The final tree is engaging in reconfiguration. As a result of the storm, the tree may have changed its growth course. The injuries that the tree sustained from the storm inform how the tree continues to grow, making it unique in it’s architecture and more prepared for the next storm.

Trauma and Growth

Post-traumatic growth is the ability to gain something valuable as a result of struggle. The final tree, that of reconfiguration, has undergone post-traumatic growth. In the course of a human life, trauma is essentially unavoidable; disaster, assault, loss, and fear will accost us all. Like the third tree, however, there can be something beneficial in recovering from our wounds.

Against all odds, most people find that they have gained something vital as a result of trauma. One of the most common outcomes is a realigning of values: perhaps you are a kinder and more attentive friend, or you experience value and gratitude where you previously overlooked it, or you feel less tempted to waste your time on unfulfilling pursuits. Trauma can put our lives in sudden, sharp focus. In a moment you may realize that your time is precious. This radical, intense discomfort makes space for our unique growth following trauma.

Setting Things Right Again

When we are wounded, we can foster resilience by righting the wrongs of our traumas. Trauma, by definition, implies being alone (either in reality or in perception) and being disempowered. Following trauma, we can begin to right these wrongs by seeking community and justice.

As social creatures, we are programmed to seek support when feeling frightened or overwhelmed. Following September 11th, 2001, there was a flood of interconnectedness as we all tried to establish safety in numbers. People sought to receive and offer support and there were very few who aimed to stick it out alone; we underwent collective grieving. Following trauma, we can seek resilience by finding others who understand our tragedies from the inside. By forming a support group or calling a friend we get to notice that we are not, in fact, alone.

When we feel as if our voice has been taken, our instinct may be to take it back. The Columbia student who carried her mattress around in protest of the university dismissing her rape allegations made her experience visible to the naked eye. She took something that was silent and that she burdened alone and turned it into a monument to which others could bear witness. Following police killings of innocent black men, protesters chanting “Black Lives Matter” asserted their voices to a system that wanted to quiet them. In doing so, these protesters are advocating for the dead and protecting the potential victims of the future. By reasserting what has been taken during trauma we not only allow our own voice to be heard but we speak for others who are voiceless.

A Roadmap to Wellbeing: What Comprises Mental Health?

Wellbeing is a sustained sense of value in oneself, the world, and life. But when we take a microscope to it, what actually makes up wellbeing? Below are some of the core features of mental health. Not everyone poses each of these attributes, of course. What are some of your strongest abilities? How can you foster these abilities in yourself?

  1. The Capacity to Work – this does not necessarily refer to your ability to hold a 9-to-5 but rather the sense that there is something that you do with your time that is meaningful. This could be a hobby, volunteer work, a job, or caring for a family member. If you don’t have that now, what do you envision it might be?
  2. The Capacity to Love – our ability to have an authentic relationship with another person or to experience devotion towards someone’s wellbeing even if it sometimes comes at a cost to our own.
  3. The Capacity to Play – the enjoyment of actively participating in something fun like playing sports, dancing, singing, or actual play. All mammals play and it is probably an essential part of who we are.
  4. Feeling Safe in a Relationship – as young children some of us learn that the world can be a dangerous place and this understanding can persist into adulthood. We all need another person with whom we can feel truly safe. Research has shown that if we did not feel that way with our parents/families as children the two things that can start to change that are a partner relationship that lasts at least five years or a relationship with a therapist that lasts at least two years.
  5. Self-Efficacy – a sense that you have control over some aspects of your life. You might start determining your level of self-efficacy by asking “how many of the things in my life are happening because I want them to happen?”
  6. Identity – a feeling that you know who you are and can recognize both the great and not-so-great things about you. This is also a sense of comfort in our bodies or “in our own skin.”
  7. Resilience – our ability to make it through difficult experiences (which is something that we have all done).
  8. Self-Esteem – this is not just feeling good about ourselves. It’s a balance between being kind to ourselves but also knowing what our strengths and limitations are. We need to know what’s valuable about ourselves and how we can use those things to move towards our goals.
  9. Values – a sense of moral integrity. We may feel like we have an inner compass that guides us toward what we feel is right, kind, and just. What do you value above all else?
  10. Emotional Flexibility – our ability to not only be okay with but to enjoy the variety of emotions (and thoughts) that we experience. We are creatures that can feel love, fear, anger, sadness, empathy, joy, disgust, etc. We can savor these emotions and embrace them.
  11. Awareness of Others – when we can recognize that other people have lives, thoughts, and intentions separate from our own, we can experience something entirely outside of ourselves.
  12. Balance between Togetherness and Separateness – we can be like porcupines on a cold night: we come together for warmth but then pull apart when we start to prick each other (and then get cold and come together for warmth again). What’s the “sweet spot” for you in between these two opposed ideas?
  13. Feeling Alive – this often comes from a sense of enthusiasm or vitality for living. It can also mean feeling like you are embracing your authentic self and living the life that feels right and genuine for you.
  14. Acceptance – there are always things in life that are painful and unchangeable. That is inevitable. When we can grieve the losses associated with that and begin to move on we encourage an essential part of our mental health.

What struck you on this list? Are there several skills with which you are particularly strong? Which skills would you like to work on strengthening? Remember that wellbeing is, by definition, a process and not a state of being. Therefore, we are all striving towards greater wellbeing together.

Note: this post is based off of the ideas of the brilliant Nancy McWilliams. To see her talk on this subject, go here.

Next time: Building Hope

The Difference Between Happiness and Wellbeing (and Why it Matters)

We so often hear “I just want to be happy.” But what is happiness and is achieving it realistic? Furthermore, if we are not aiming for happiness, what are we aiming for?

According to most psychologists, happiness boils down to this:

hap-pi-ness: noun; the absence of negative emotions and the presence of positive emotions; synonyms: pleasure, cheerfulness, merriment, glee

Happiness is, by definition, a momentary state of being. It can ebb and flow (and even disappear) rapidly because it is based on how we are feeling right now. Happiness can seem like an objective that is always just out of reach. Merriment and glee are difficult states of being to obtain (and even more challenging to hold on to). Many of us find ourselves frustrated by never quite being able to reach the fabled land of happiness (which can then lead use further down the road of discontentment).

What if, however, we were aiming at the wrong target? Enter: wellbeing. Wellbeing is a more enduring way of experiencing yourself and the world. Wellbeing is a wealth of inner energy, strength, curiosity, perseverance, and compassion. It inspires awe and wonder. Wellbeing also allows for vulnerability, experiencing sadness and loss, taking risks, and feeling uncertain. In fact, wellbeing encourages these states as they are part of the human experience and necessary paths towards growth. Happiness might tell us to stay where we are because “Where we are is nice and why risk losing that?” Wellbeing cries “Forge ahead! There is more to be discovered!” Wellbeing knows full well that this attitude will frequently lead to bumps and bruises but that it will also lead to triumph, discovery, and expansion.

Since happiness is a “right now” state, it will always be superficial. It can be knocked out of view by something as simple as getting stuck in traffic. Wellbeing is a much deeper well from which to draw. Wellbeing allows us to consider the importance and meaning of struggle. Wellbeing encourages us to experience challenging emotions fully (as opposed to trying to avoid them). Wellbeing teaches us to consider the needs of others even when it comes at a cost to us. Wellbeing encourages us to be awestruck by beauty.

Next time we find ourselves despairing about our lack of happiness perhaps we can reconsider where we are aiming. If we embrace vulnerability and striving for meaningful pursuits we are almost guaranteed to have times of frustration, loneliness, and hurt. But we are just as likely to experience profound joy, achievement, and wonder. Wellbeing would tell us “Be patient. Struggle is part of the process.”

Next time: A Roadmap to Wellbeing: What Comprises Mental Health?