Resilience in the face of trauma: Can it be learned?


The last plenary session at the ISTSS conference today covered the topic of resilience. I’ll give a few highlights of the Charney and Southwick presentation that might be of interest to you along with some of my own thoughts and questions.

The presentation centered on findings from their research regarding factors supporting resilience in POWs during the Vietnam war. Here are some of these factors that support overcoming and growing through traumatic experiences:

  • Optimism. Or, more pointedly, realistic optimism. Charney described it as trait optimism. This kind of optimism is not pollyanna but the combination of realistic assessment plus the faith/belief that one will persevere
  • Cognitive flexibility. The capacity to re-assess the traumatic events  and come to a different meaning. For example, instead of viewing torture as something that can’t be stopped, viewing it as something that makes the person stronger over time. KEY: the ability to reframe failures
  • A strong personal morality maintained.
  • Purpose in life. The researchers noted that those who attended more religious services were more likely to be resilient. They wondered if this was the result of the social support and identity or the sense of being created for a greater purpose. HOWEVER, they also noted that those more likely to believe that the trauma was a direct result of God’s punishment had much lower hope and resilience. 
  • Role models. Resilient individuals have a role models to encourage strength. The POWs often found each other to be a source of inner strength to bear up under torture. 
  • Ability to face fears; acceptance, yet 
  • Active coping responses. Responses such as minimizing memories of trauma, positive focus on personal strengths
  • Attending to physical well-being
  • A strong social network actively sought out. Inter 
  • Experiences of stress inoculation. Having minor to moderate stressors but with the capacity to cope (success with lower stressors)

Is resilience born or learned?

There is some evidence of genetic components. Personality traits seem to play a significant role. In addition, neurochemical processes play a strong role. Fear and reward circuitries in the brain play a significant role. One such neurochemical, Neuropeptide Y seems to be a naturally occurring anti anxiety neurotransmitter. Apparently, there are some promising studies underway using a nasal version of Neuropeptide Y to decrease anxiety in mice. 

However, there is some evidence that cognitive re-framing work in counseling helps improve resilience. In addition, physical activity, better sleep, improved social support, the practice of mindfulness, the presence of a caring adult and reflecting on positive self appraisal can improve resilience. 

So, if you are struggling to cope with recent or historic traumatic experiences, I strongly encourage you to consider not so much what you lost in the trauma but how God has given you power to survive despite the experiences. In addition, accepting the losses experienced during trauma is necessary even as you continue to take note of the gifts God has given you in spite of those losses. And when you can’t do that, get sleep, eat a high protein diet, and exercise. 

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Filed under Abuse, ptsd, suffering, trauma

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