Trauma is an everyday occurrence in our world. Everyone experiences it at some point or another. Whether it’s something “normal” like an auto accident or surgery, or whether it’s something more unusual, like an attack, abuse, combat or seeing someone killed, it happens to a lot of people. But most people recover fairly well, and don’t develop severe symptoms of PTSD. Aftereffects are limited to a few days or weeks after the event, and people soon return to living their lives as before, at least mostly. We say these people have more resiliency.
However, for many others, the effects last longer and are more disruptive. They manifest as physical illnesses and sudden thoughts and feelings that can make normal functioning difficult, if not impossible. What makes the difference? Why is it that two people who experience the same thing see such different results?
Differences that make a difference
Well, first let’s address that word same. No two people are the same in terms of body chemistry, personality and life experiences or many other factors. That means that no two people ever experience the same trauma in the same way. Even if we’re sitting next to each other when the car goes into the pole, it’s not the same event for us. And some of the differences can make all the difference in the world, in terms of resiliency.
First, there are differences in how things went down. People who are able to do something about what’s happening, who are able to maintain some level of control, are not nearly as traumatized. Perhaps you got away from one threat but succumbed to something else. Maybe you were able to soften the blows somehow. Perhaps someone came to your aid, or you were able to come to someone else’s. These aspects of being in control are important. The less control, the more severe the trauma.
Another thing that matters is how connected you are to other people. The more positive personal and social relationships you have, the greater your resiliency. Being able to call someone up, to share the burden of the event with others who care—this is important. We are social animals, and social connections are a vital part of our mental health. If you want to be able to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, stay connected. (It’ll actually help you live longer, too.)
One more important thing—your history of previous unresolved trauma is important. People who have experienced a lot of prior trauma seem to be more susceptible to being harmed by new traumas. Things that might be a difficult bump in the road for someone with an ACE score of zero and a supportive group of friends and family can be overwhelming to someone with a score of four or five—especially if they are socially more isolated. The bottom line is that life is very unfair in this regard. People who’ve been badly hurt before are less resilient in the face of new traumatic experiences.
Getting in front of the problem
You can think of resiliency as PTSD pre-treatment. It is preventive. If we are more resilient we can do better regardless of what difficulties we face tomorrow. So is there anything we can do about that?
The short answer is yes. Let’s look at a few.
First, take control. Perhaps we couldn’t avoid the car accident. But what can you do now? Finding a way to empower yourself in the situation is extremely important. Regaining control helps us feel more normal after difficult events. We can’t change the past, but we can do something to make today better.
Then, create and strengthen social connections. This is extremely powerful. Healing takes place in a context of social support. And one of the unfortunate things about experiencing traumatic events is that sometimes they can interfere with our sense of security, and along with that, our willingness to trust others. We also tend to isolate ourselves when we feel bad. These reactions, while natural, just don’t help. We need to find some people we can trust, we need to reach out for help.
One thing that can actually increase both of these (empowerment and connection) is to help others who have gone through similar circumstances. Join a support group. Volunteer. Collect donations. Spread the word. This gives us a sense of control as well as connections with people we can relate to. That’s a double-dose of resiliency right there.
Getting past the past
The last thing I’ll mention is also an important one. We need to address the past traumatic events we have faced which have reduced our resiliency, our flexibility, our capacity to “bend in the wind.” The past often isn’t really past, in terms of how it has impacted us. If we’re functioning well, have some good times as well as tough ones, usually feel pretty happy with ourselves and our lives, that’s good—perhaps we can let sleeping dogs lie. But many of us are far from that description. Depression, anxiety, addiction, constant self-sabotage—these are signs that something is out of balance, even if we don’t have full-on PTSD. It means that there is some work to do—not so that we dwell in the past, but so we can finally live free from its continuing harmful effects.
The goal of trauma treatment is just that—for the past to become the past. A part of us, for sure, but a part that no longer frightens or paralyzes us. The traumatic experiences become chapters in our story, just like all the other chapters, albeit not as sunny. But once we’ve told the stories and written the chapters, once our bodies have really become convinced that the nightmare is over—then it’s time to get back to living a fulfilling life. Work, love, serve and play. That’s the point, right?