Why Some Individuals ‘Bounce Back’ And Thrive After Trauma

Severe and protracted trauma during childhood can lead to the development of a complex form of post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a wide variety of other psychological disorders, in later life. But some ‘bounce back’ and even go on to thrive. Interest in post-traumatic stress disorder really took off in the 1980s and, during the 1990s, researchers noted that whilst post-traumatic stress disorder shattered many lives, some individuals eventually found that their lives were enhanced following their traumatic experience.

This may, at first, seem counterintuitive, so I explain how this positive transformation following trauma may come about. Researchers O’Leary and Ickovics developed a categorization system to highlight the difference between individual responses to trauma. This system involved four categories:

Category One – Succumbed: Those who had their ability to function in life devastated were said by O’Leary and Ickovics to have ‘succumbed’. (N.B. this word is in no way a suggestion that individuals who fall into this category are in any way weak or deficient in any way whatsoever – after all, everyone’s life and ability to function can be devastated by trauma; nobody is immune).

Category Two – Survival With Impairment: This second category represents those who, after their traumatic experiences, was able to resume some semblance of their former lives, but were not able to function as well as they had previously.

Category ThreeResilient: This category comprises those individuals who were resilient enough to the effects of their traumatic experiences to carry on with their lives with a similar level of functioning to that displayed previously.

Category FourThrive: Individuals in the fourth and final group were actually able to become more fulfilled in life, and function at a higher level, than prior to their traumatic experiences.  

Why Are Some Individuals Able To Bounce Back And Thrive As A Result Of Their Traumatic Experiences?

As one might very well expect, psychological researchers quickly became very interested in trying to discover just exactly what factors were at play that allowed some people to actually improve their quality of life as a result of their traumatic experiences. Research carried out to date suggests that about seven out of ten people who have experienced significant trauma derive at least some benefit to their lives as a result. Those who are more resilient are likely to benefit most from their experience of trauma. So what factors help to make a person resilient?

Factors That Help A Person To Be Resilient:

Research suggests that the following factors help a person to be resilient to the adverse effects of trauma: – an optimistic nature – a high level of self-esteem – a sense of humor – strong relationships / secure attachments with significant others – the ability to be capable of trusting others – a sense of one’s own control (psychologists refer to this as having an internal locus of control) – a strong sense of self-reliance/self a sufficiency / perceived ability to cope / resourcefulness – good interpersonal/social skills

In What Ways May People’s Lives Improve After Trauma?

First, the experience of significant trauma can help the individual to put the smaller problems in life into their proper perspective. Second, because the love and support of others are so crucial to recovery from trauma, many come to more fully appreciate the vital importance of their relationships with others, which, in turn, can make them work harder to maintain and strengthen such relationships. (This may not be applicable to all trauma survivors, such as those with Asperger’s syndrome.) Third, by surviving significant trauma, many individuals gain a new sense of their inner strength in a similar way to how a person who gets through a SAS training course may gain a strong belief in their powers of endurance. A final example of how a person’s life may actually be enhanced by surviving trauma is a greater appreciation of life in general, the development of a more helpful ‘philosophy of life’, and a strong desire to make the most of every single day.

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10 Ways To Build Resilience

Different people respond in different ways to trauma. One of the reasons for this is that some people are more resilient to its adverse effects than others and even manage to grow and develop as a person in positive ways (a phenomenon known as posttraumatic growth) that would not have occurred had they not experienced the traumatic event/s. However, resilience is not something that a person either has or does not have, rather, it is something that we can build and develop. According to the American Psychological Association there are TEN MAIN WAYS WE CAN INCREASE OUR RESILIENCE and these are as follows :

 

  1. Develop social connections: e.g. with supportive family members, friends, community support groups (in general, the more social/emotional support we have, the more psychologically resilient we are likely to be. Research has also found that working as a volunteer and helping others is another good strategy for resilience-building.
  2. If changes have occurred which are irreversible, accept that this is just part of what life involves and direct energy towards things that can be positively changed.
  3. Take decisive action: when one has suffered trauma: it is easy to fall into the trap of endlessly ruminating upon what has gone wrong and feel helpless; it is necessary to avoid this, and, instead, take decisive action to change things for the better (see my previously published article on childhood trauma and depression which includes information on LEARNED HELPLESSNESS AND BEHAVIORAL ACTIVATION).
  4. Try to keep an optimistic outlook – rather than negatively ruminate, attempt to visualize solutions / how you would like the future to turn out.
  5. Try to maintain perspective by seeing things in the context of the ‘bigger picture’ / taking a long-term view.
  6. Self-care: Treat yourself with compassion, do things you enjoy (or used to enjoy), exercise, eat well and generally look after your needs and feelings (especially by avoiding stress as far as possible.
  7. Consider if the trauma may, in some respects, help develop you as a person; there may be opportunities for posttraumatic growth – for example, some trauma survivors report improved relationships, increased inner strength and coping ability, spiritual growth, a greater sense of self-worth (knowing they can survive great difficulties, for example) and increased empathy for the suffering of others as a result of their adverse experiences.
  8. Focus on maintaining a positive self-view, especially in relation to your problem-solving abilities.
  9. Try to set goals each day that help you to move forward, however small, so that at the end of the day you can know you have done at least one positive thing.
  10. Avoid ‘catastrophizing’ (seeing crises as insurmountable problems) – cognitive behavioral therapy can help with this, as well as with other so-called ‘thinking errors’).

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