The United States Senate has established June 27th as PTSD Awareness Day, the focal point of “PTSD Awareness Month."
This is not simply an American effort, despite the Senate resolution. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) is also honoring PTSD Awareness month, right alongside the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) and the National Center for PTSD (which is a division of the United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs).
Instead of focusing specifically on PTSD, however, I'd like to focus in this post on resilience: that important quality that helps us cope with crisis and heal after trauma.
What is resilience?
From a psychological perspective, it describes our ability to return to a healthy emotional baseline after stress or trauma. We all have a certain degree of resilience, but how much depends on many different factors, including our history of interpersonal relationships, particularly in key developmental periods in childhood.
Fortunately, resilience is a capacity that can grow, and there are things we can do to strengthen it so we can reduce our risk of PTSD.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) lists some resilience factors that help protect against PTSD. These include:
Seeking out support from other people, such as friends and family
Finding a support group after a traumatic event
Feeling good about one’s own actions in the face of danger
Having a coping strategy, or a way of getting through the bad event and learning from it
Being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fear.
The first two are especially important because it's in the context of our first caregiving relationships that our brain's initial substrate for resilience is built. Later, when our emotions are taxed to the limit, other people can help provide a scaffold for our emotions in much the same way as did our first caregivers.
The third factor listed, feeling good about one's own actions in the face of danger, is related to how well we are able to fit our experiences into a coherent narrative. It's well known that being able to do so helps us cope with all kinds of negative events, and of course one of the best ways to construct that narrative seems to be along the lines of seeing a positive outcome from the experience, as difficult as that task may seem.
Fortunately, certain coping strategies have proven especially effective in helping us construct a positive narrative. For instance, suggests University of British Columbia researcher John Helliwell along with his colleagues, doing good for others and working together as a community is one strategy that is particularly effective for helping people cope better with crisis. It also makes them happier. Part of the reason for their greater resilience, says Helliwell, is the fact that humans are more than simply social beings, they are so-called ‘pro-social‘ beings. In other words, they get happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others.
Interestingly, people who have been through trauma—whether they succumb to PTSD or not—seem to have the instinct to work toward this coping skill naturally.
One study from the latest issue of the journal Psychological Trauma published by the APA’s Division 56 finds that people who have experienced trauma tend to be more prosocial and perceive more meaning in their life—even when they have more PTSD symptoms. Their traumatic experiences actually lead them to care for and help others more than those who haven’t experienced trauma.
In fact, wrote the researchers, when people said their volunteer work was related to a life experience, the most common motivations were negative life events. . . . (e.g., ‘My mother was hit and badly injured by a drunk driver. Ever since I have volunteered for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.’)”
“Our findings,” they wrote, “consistently indicate that trauma exposure is positively associated with engaging in prosocial [helping] behavior. Individuals who reported experiencing more traumatic events in their lifetime reported engaging in more helping behaviors during a 2-week period and more volunteer activities annually than those who had experienced fewer traumas.”
Certainly there are additional ways we can work toward building resilience. But as a giant step toward getting through a bad event, responding well and learning from it . . . helping others may be just the coping strategy the doctor ordered.