Written By: Dr. Jan Anderson, PsyD, LPCC | I recently had my first appointment with my new primary care physician. As she scanned the medical history of my parents, she paused when she got to the cause of death. “So… your father was … murdered?”
Most of the clients I encounter have experienced some kind of psychological trauma in their lives — but it’s generally not an acute, single-occurrence personal tragedy, or a catastrophic natural disaster or accident, or the actual experience of life-threatening physical or psychological harm.
That’s why I prefer not to use the word trauma—because it seems to imply that only the extreme, big, horrific stuff counts or has any lasting effect.
Actually, I’ve come to think of trauma as another word for life, because most of us (70% of U.S. adults) have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in our lives.
TRAUMA MESSES WITH YOUR MIND
Trauma results when the experience of an event, a series of events or a set of circumstances overwhelms our ability to cope with what happened or process the emotions involved. A traumatic experience has lasting effects on our physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being. It affects our ability to function well in important areas of our lives.
In other words, trauma messes with your mind. It shakes your beliefs about the world, the people in it and how life really works. It can leave you in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity.
Researchers like Janoff-Bulman as well as DePrince and Freyd found that trauma can shatter three of our basic assumptions about the world:
- The world is benevolent.
- Life is meaningful.
- The self is worthy.
I can relate to that — I became acutely aware of two things through my experience of what happened to my father:
- There is no absolute safety. If someone really wants to kill you, there’s no 100% guarantee that you can keep yourself safe.
- Justice is not guaranteed. For me, the worst moment of the murder trial was waiting for the jury’s verdict and realizing that the man who killed my father might walk out of the courtroom that day a free man.
HOW TO GET A GRIP
There’s a part of us that is deeply affected by trauma. However, I have found that rather than trying to “fix” that traumatized part of us, recovery is more about accessing other, more resilient parts of ourselves — that are better able to integrate the emotions involved without being flooded by them and process the experience without being shattered by it.
When I was recently asked to speak at the Kentucky Counseling Association annual conference about how to treat and prevent trauma, I was thankful to be able to share research conducted since my family and I were struggling through our experience over thirty years ago.
What we now know, thanks to researchers like Matthew Tull, is that our ability to recover boils down to a combination of built-in resilient characteristics that we already have in place, further resiliency that we can develop within ourselves, and the resiliency that we can draw upon from those around us.
HOW TO GET BACK UP AND GO ON
I can now look back and recognize that I eventually tapped into or cultivated many of these characteristics or resources in my own recovery journey:
- Being resourceful
- Being more likely to seek help
- Holding the belief that there something you can do to manage your feelings and cope
- Self-disclosure of the trauma to a trusted confidante
- Having an identity as a survivor, as opposed to a victim
- Having social support and connection with others, such as family or friends
- Good problem-solving skills
- Effective coping skills to deal with stress
- Helping others
- Finding positive meaning in the trauma
It’s hard to imagine someone like Sheryl Sandberg, celebrated COO of Facebook and best-selling author of “Lean In,” having to deal with trauma. But it’s not so hard to think about anyone — no matter how powerful, affluent or accomplished — having to deal with life. After her 47-year-old husband suddenly dropped dead while they were on vacation last year, Sandberg was eventually ready to return to work, but struggling with how to manage it.
So she began posting updates to her Facebook page as a way to start the transition: “Many of my co-workers had a look fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why — they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say?”
“I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in. And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be.”
Sandberg has continued to speak openly and candidly about dealing with her husband’s death, including a moving speech at the 2016 UC Berkley commencement. “You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are — and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”
Sheryl Sandberg recently confirmed that she is now working on a new book that combines her personal story along with others to focus on building residence and finding meaning in the face of grief and adversity.
I’d call that a good example of self-disclosure, finding positive meaning in trauma and helping others… and just about every other characteristic of resilience that we have identified. Sounds like something all of experiencing “life” could use.
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