Resilience | A Guide to: Getting through your life trauma & maintaining positive mental health
To celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, I want to write about a topic I find imperative to maintaining positive mental health: resilience.
However, before I start talking about resilience, I want to talk about a major barrier to positive mental health which is trauma. Everyone alive is subjected to some level of trauma. Trauma can be defined as direct exposure to a sudden, deeply distressing or disturbing experience. There are levels to trauma, just as there are levels of distress. Regardless of the severity, all trauma results in feelings of psychological distress and need to be worked through. Can you think of any traumatic events from your life? Deaths of loved ones, a life threatening situation, losing a job, having a loved one go to prison, suffering a bodily injury, dealing with a serious or terminal illness diagnosis, suffering a traumatic injury, suffering any type of abuse, ect. Each of us can relate to at least one of the things I just mentioned.
Symptoms of trauma manifest in many ways. Specifically, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is used to describe life impairing effects from a traumatic experience. Some of the symptoms of PTSD include intrusive thoughts/memories of the trauma, avoidance of things you associate with the trauma, negative changes in thoughts and moods related to the trauma, as well as changes in arousal and reactivity related to the trauma (irritability, hyper-vigilance, self-destructive behavior, problems with concentration and sleep).
Let’s start to think of the ways that trauma effects our lives. Has it had an impact on your relationships, your career, your physical health, your finances and of course your mental health? It certainly has on mine. Whether you are aware or accepting of this or not, the effects will come. Luckily for us all, trauma is not a sentence of irreversible damage! This is where resilience comes in. Let me tell you how…
Specifically I want to discuss psychological resilience. By definition, this is someone’s ability to cope with and return to their normal (pre-trauma) functioning, following a traumatic event. How well do you bounce back from major stressors? This is done through (learned) mental processes and behaviors that enhance personal strengths and minimize the effects of negative stressors and triggers. In 2011, Dr.Galen Buckwalter coined the “Big Three” of resilience: strength, purpose/meaning and pleasure/happiness. All of these traits need to be experienced both cognitively as well as emotionally, in order to build resilience. Some other important factors include: a positive view of yourself, confidence in your strength and abilities, the ability to make and achieve realistic plans, communication and problem solving skills as well as the capacity to manage strong emotions and impulses.
Realistically, resilience is learned and built. But, how? I have identified 10 things I have found to help build resiliency:
Find your tribe: We as social beings, cannot face life alone. Post-trauma it is easy to isolate yourself and withdraw. Surround yourself with people who want the best for you, this might mean finding new friends. Learn to accept help and support from people that genuinely care about you.
Brace yourself: Be prepared. Crisis will come. It is inevitable. However, avoid seeing crisis as insurmountable. Just keep swimming; remain hopeful and think of your previous accomplishments/success when you need motivation.
Accept vs change: These are really your two main options in life, to accept things or to change them. Insert the serenity prayer, blah blah. Following a traumatic event, it is important to re-asses your goals and priorities. This also applies to how you view the traumatic event and your residual emotions regarding it. Try making a new goal list or a new vision board. If certain things are no longer important or simply unrealistic, release it and let it go.
Progress, not perfection: Building resilience, healing trauma and moving forward is a process-a continuous process. After you have established your realistic/attainable goal(s), next identify what steps you need to take to achieve your goal. Take the time to write down your goals and the actions steps. Let me say that again for all of you that just glanced over that…WRITE YOUR GOALS DOWN. Like physically, on paper, make it 3D. By writing it down, you make it real. A goal in your mind, is just an idea. A goal written down is a plan. If you’re unsure where to start with setting intentions and writing goals, check out my post about scripting here. As you begin to work on your action steps, remember progress > perfection.
“Carry a big stick”: If you are unfamiliar, Teddy Roosevelt had a diplomatic philosophy known as “big stick”, which comes from the quote “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. By this I mean, learn to be assertive for yourself in a non aggressive manner. Being assertive does not mean to be forceful. I believe in self-advocacy, and finding your voice can be difficult following a traumatic event. When you encounter an adverse situation, do not hesitate or be afraid to act in your best interest!
Develop Self: Take time to discover who you are and who you want to be. After a traumatic event, a lot of people experience a period of “reconstruction” which often leads to a type of “rebirth”. This is a very important time to be patient with yourself and seek out chances to expand yourself. Time to expand your comfort zone an box of thinking.
Self-Affirm: Maintain a positive sense of self. You gotta build yourself up and become your own cheerleader! Have confidence in your ability to bounce back and be resilient. Silence your inner saboteur and be your best self! Check out my post and learn how to silence your inner demon here. You have the skills to problem solve, so use that when you find yourself getting triggered. Also, reaffirm your instincts. Self-affirmations are a great way to speak positivity to yourself. Check out my post 50 Affirmations for Self-Love here. Oftentimes during a traumatic event, our instincts take over. These instincts might be what keep you safe.
Stay Balanced: Keep things in perspective. Avoid pessimism or, making a mountain out of a molehill. Work on reframing negative thoughts. Instead of the glass being half empty, it is half full. Again, if you can’t change it-accept it.
Remain Hopeful: Notice I used “hopeful” and not “positive”. Realistically, shit happens. Everything in life will not always be sunshine and rainbows, or we wouldn’t be talking about trauma. However, as you face things, remain hopeful. Having a hopeful outlook means there is always something to look forward to. Having hope is necessary and contributes to your will to live. Following trauma, you may feel like you have less to live for. In such cases, identify and WRITE DOWN all of the many things you have to look forward to by living and continuing to persevere. Visualize what you want, instead of thinking or worrying about thing you don’t.
Self-Care: If you don’t take care of yourself, all of this is for nothing! Develop positive, new coping and relaxation skills to use consistently. Coping is the ability to deal with life circumstances. Relaxation is the ability to recover and replenish. You will need both and you will need both consistently. Check out my post 3 Steps to Self-Care here.
Now that we have identified some ways to build resilience, I hope that you reflect on them and apply them to your life as necessary. Although there is no correct order, I would suggest that you work on mastering each, one at a time. I can attest personally and professionally that all of the suggestions above are clinically significant and will assist you in your healing process. In 2014, The European Journal of Psychotraumology published the article Psychosocial facets of resilience: implications for preventing posttrauma psychopathology, treating trauma survivors, and enhancing community resilience (Iacoviello & Charney) which identified numerous psychosocial traits associated with resilience.
If you get to a step that you aren’t ready for yet, come back to it. Everyone’s journey is different and you are the expert on your life. I always encourage people to document their growth. It is really regarding to be able to reflect and look back on your progress and healing. Eventually, you will be able to balance maintaining all of these areas at once. Working through trauma is a difficult process and I recommend that everyone talk to a trained professional about their experiences.
I know firsthand how difficult it is to work through your trauma and build resiliency. If I can make it through, so can you. If your intention is to progress and heal, focus on that. Progress, not perfection. All I can tell you is that, once you have these skills, things get easier. As a child, when I experienced trauma, I never knew about any of these things and never got the help I needed. Now, as an adult, I am able to better cope with trauma and it’s effects which in the long run will help and heal myself. It is a journey that I am still actively on. Everyday is different, the experiences change and so will your feelings. Life is a feeling process. Personally, one of the first steps I had to take was finding my tribe. That started with talking to my family about what happened. It was important that I did not feel alone. Talking to them helped me feel supported and reaffirmed that I was safe. Talking to them also gave me someone to check on me and keep me accountable for my responsibilities. Oftentimes following trauma, we are unstable. Having my mom check on me to see how I was feeling, or if I was eating was invaluable. During that time, I struggled to take care of myself and my tribe were able to step in and support me tremendously.
Two of the most successful treatment modalities are Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (TFCBT) and Eye Motion Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) (Bisson et al., 2007). If professional counseling is not a current option for you, find someone you can trust to confide in and support you until you are able to get professional services. However, with the convenience of tele-counseling, therapy apps like Talk Space and numerous community resources, there really is not excuse to not get the help and healing that you require and deserve.