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Trauma Resilience: What It Is and How To Build It

9 min.

Although trauma can have devastating effects, it is possible to develop resilience in its aftermath. Here’s how.

By: Ashley Laderer

May 9, 2023

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Trauma is a complex experience that can have major consequences for someone’s well-being. A single traumatic experience or ongoing, repeated incidents of trauma can take a toll on mental health. Trauma can sometimes result in long-term complications such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

But they say every cloud has a silver lining, right? Believe it or not, some people may experience some benefits after trauma, such as newfound resilience.

Regardless of the type of trauma you endured, whether it was early childhood trauma or a traumatic event later in life, it’s possible to develop resilience and grow from the experience.

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What is trauma resilience?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), psychological resilience is defined as “the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences.” In the context of trauma, resiliency refers to the ability to cope and move forward in the aftermath of trauma. 

Healing from trauma doesn’t mean you’re ignoring the past or that you’re totally unaffected by the trauma. You’re not sweeping it under the rug and pretending it never happened. It also isn’t discounting or invalidating the trauma you endured. 

Instead, resiliency simply means that you can adapt, adjust, and continue on with your life despite the difficulties you have faced. The APA says resilience is developed when one has emotional, mental, and behavioral flexibility and an ability to adjust accordingly.

Resiliency involves being able to manage your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in a healthy way, supporting your overall well-being after trauma. A key aspect of this is emotional regulation. Trauma can result in many difficult emotions ranging from guilt, shame, anger, and sadness. Emotional regulation allows you to experience and manage all of these emotions healthily.

In addition to its other benefits, resilience can also aid in preserving your social relationships, staying committed to your values and aspirations, and shielding yourself from being overwhelmed by negative thoughts or stories related to the trauma. Challenging negative beliefs and developing more positive and realistic ones can help you to stay empowered and on track to move forward.

Resilience is not a fixed trait, meaning it’s not something you either have or don’t. Rather, it’s something that you can build over time. If you put in the work, you can develop resilience. Emotional regulation, for example, can be worked on in therapy.

What is post-traumatic growth?

Going a step further beyond trauma resilience, you can also consider the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth. This is a relatively new concept that wasn’t coined until the 1990s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, who developed “The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory.” 

They referred to this as the “positive legacy” that trauma may leave on some trauma survivors. It is about more than just bouncing back after trauma –– it’s about how your life is truly impacted and changed after trauma exposure. The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory shows that you can change for the better and implement newfound positive changes in your life moving forward.

These psychologists noted that trauma can be devastating, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t any possible benefits to it. The scale that the psychologists created touches on five factors:

  1. Relating to others: This factor is all about social support, leaving on loved ones, and having the ability to open up about emotions and ask for help. This can help you heal and can help you connect more deeply to others throughout your life. You may experience newfound closeness with people, more compassion for others, and a desire to put more effort into your relationships. 
  2. New possibilities: Trauma can open doors for you and present you with fresh opportunities. You may even find a new purpose in life, develop different interests, and desire to make changes for the better.
  3. Personal strength: Overcoming something as difficult as a traumatic experience can help you get stronger. You may realize that if you can get through this, you can get through anything. You may discover you’re stronger than you thought and gain confidence to handle difficult situations. 
  4. Spiritual change: Trauma survivors may experience spiritual growth, strengthen any existing spirituality, or lead you on a new spiritual path. (Note: the American Psychological Association reports that future iterations of the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory will expand to also apply to people who are more secular)
  5. Appreciation of life: Trauma survivors may look at life differently after trauma. For example, you may learn to appreciate every day as it comes, recognize the value of life, and understand what is truly most important to you. 

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What promotes resilience after trauma?

Luckily, you can build resilience after trauma in many ways, ranging from practicing self-care to seeking professional mental health care. Here are seven tips for building resilience.

1. Seek out social support

Experts in the field have found social support to be a very important factor contributing to psychological resilience. Building and maintaining close connections with friends, family, and loved ones can help you feel like you aren’t alone in your struggles. Social support from people you trust can help you feel more safe and comfortable as you go about life after trauma. 

This support can mean many things — you can have a shoulder to cry on when you’re feeling down, someone to help motivate you to keep going when things are tough, or someone to simply just have fun with. Isolation can worsen mental health, so staying connected to others is important to support your well-being. 

Outside of your family, chosen family, and social circle, you may look into support groups for trauma survivors. Support groups provide you with a chance to connect with others in the same shoes as you. 

2. Find your sense of purpose

Finding purpose in life and giving back to others is a great way to build resilience. Whether giving back means showing some extra support to a loved one in need or volunteering for a specific cause you’re passionate about, the act of being selfless can help improve your sense of purpose while also helping you connect with others. Together, these factors help to boost resilience. 

Researchers believe that purpose in life can be a significant factor in preventing negative outcomes of trauma, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Having a purpose provides you with something else to focus on and work towards and may improve overall life satisfaction, despite trauma or any other adversities you may face. 

3. Practice mindfulness

Research has shown that mindfulness can help build resilience. Mindfulness is essentially the practice of staying present in any given moment, observing your thoughts, feelings, and any sensations that come up in a gentle and non-judgemental way. One of the most common ways you can practice mindfulness is through meditation, although you can certainly incorporate mindfulness into little moments throughout your day. When you’re first starting out with mindfulness, you may want to listen to guided meditations to get you on the right track. 

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4. Engage in self-care

Although maintaining social support after a traumatic event is key, it’s also important to do things on your own that foster good mental health. Self-care will help you thrive as you work on building resilience. Some self-care ideas include:

  • Journaling
  • Using art or music to express yourself
  • Doing your favorite hobbies
  • Practicing positive self-talk
  • Spending time outside
  • Meditating
  • Practicing gratitude
  • Limiting social media use

5. Take care of your physical health

When struggling with mental health, it’s easy to slack on taking care of physical health. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of going back to basics and promoting good health. If your physical health isn’t optimized, it may be harder to help your mental health get in tip-top shape. Here are some tips:

  • Get enough sleep: Clocking enough hours of quality sleep is crucial. Sleep deprivation can worsen any mental health symptoms and conditions. Teens should get eight to 10 hours, and adults should get at least seven hours. 
  • Prioritize nutrition: Eating a balanced, healthy diet can improve your overall well-being. Fueling your body with all the nutrients it needs will benefit your brain, too. 
  • Exercise: Getting active can help to boost your mood, decrease stress, and improve your health. As little as 15 minutes of movement a day can make a difference.
  • Abstain from substances: Turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with emotions is never the answer. Drugs and alcohol can worsen your physical and mental health. Not to mention, regular use can potentially develop into a substance use disorder.  

6. Challenge your thinking

Trauma may cause you to have negative and distressing thoughts. It’s important to challenge these negative beliefs so you can think more clearly. This doesn’t mean that you only look at life through rose-colored glasses and ignore negative emotions; it just means that you’re more mindful of your thoughts and working towards healthier thought patterns. Here are some tips:

  • Catch yourself if you are catastrophizing (anticipating the worst out of situations) and try to think more rationally.
  • Remind yourself of your strengths and successes, inspiring yourself to push forward.
  • Accept the things you cannot change from the past, focus on life in the present, and set small attainable goals for the future.
  • Break down big problems or struggles into smaller steps so you don’t get too overwhelmed.

7. Seek professional mental healthcare

Professional help from therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists can be life-changing for trauma survivors. Working with trauma-informed providers is key here. Yes, friends and family can provide awesome social support, but this isn’t the same as getting professional mental health care from experts in the field who are trained to help people cope with mental health struggles and psychological distress and build resilience after a traumatic experience or complex trauma.

A mental health professional can help you work through your trauma and any related effects, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anger, or guilt
  • Flashbacks of trauma
  • Desire to isolate and withdraw

Specific types of therapy such as prolonged exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) may be particularly helpful for trauma survivors to process trauma and learn to cope with their struggles. It’s best to address trauma sooner rather than later. This can potentially help prevent you from developing long-term complications such as post-traumatic stress disorder. 
Trauma-informed therapists can also help you develop resilience, find positives in your situation, determine your life purpose, and help you foster post-traumatic growth. Whether you’re dealing with complex trauma, such as ongoing child abuse, or acute trauma, such as an instance of sexual violence, a trauma-informed therapist can provide you with the most specialized care. 

How Charlie Health can help 

Are you a trauma survivor who wants to process trauma and become more resilient? If so, Charlie Health may be able to help you.

Our personalized Intensive Outpatient Program provides mental health treatment for teens, young adults, and families dealing with various struggles, including trauma. In our program, you’ll be matched with a trauma-informed therapist who meets your specific needs. Additionally, you’ll be connected with a group of peers who face similar struggles to help you remember you’re not alone. 

Coping with trauma isn’t always easy, but with trauma-informed care and a supportive community, you can develop resilience and grow from your trauma. Help is here now. Get started on your healing journey today.

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