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Trauma and Resilience

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So I’m at this conference on mindfulness, trauma, and addiction right now. For some reason, I seem to be drawn to these topics. Just like for some reason, I seem to be drawn to guys who’ve been traumatized. And to therapy, in general.

Actually, I think I know why. It occurred to me earlier this year that my interest in trauma may be more than just intellectual curiosity. I am always “jokingly” saying that I was traumatized by my some of my past relationships. I have mini-flashbacks. I shut down when people yell at me. I have an exaggerated startle response.

And I had anxiety attacks during the presentations on trauma at this conference. Yesterday afternoon I had to take an Ativan because I felt like I was drowning. I couldn’t go back to the conference today; two days of listening to examples of my relationship history were all I could tolerate.

Still, like my clients, I look back at the events of my life and think, was it really that bad? There are lots of people who had it worse than me. But the more I learn, the more I realize that everyone has experienced some trauma.

In my case, having a parent with a mental illness was traumatic. Having a spouse with a mental illness was traumatic. And coping with my own mental illness while I tried to help the people I loved with theirs was also traumatic.

I was reminded during this conference that many therapists have experienced trauma. Helping others is a way to have a sense of mastery over our past. That’s why it seems depressing to most people to spend all day listening to other people’s problems, but it isn’t to us.

You would think that realizing that I have been traumatized would make me feel bad about myself, but the opposite is true. Instead of thinking that I’m weak and pathetic because I get overwhelmed easily and shut down and can’t function, now I think, look how awesome I have coped with everything! I kick ass!

In fact, resilience, post-traumatic growth, and grit are the new darlings of positive psychology. Some people thrive in the face of traumatic events. Sometimes they even find a way to turn it into something good–usually by trying to help other people.

For example, the student organization that I supervise, Active Minds, was founded by Alison Malmon, whose brother committed suicide while he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He had not told anyone that he was suffering from schizoaffective disorder, including his family. Alison recognized that many students probably lived in secrecy like her brother did, so she created Active Minds, whose goal is to raise awareness and reduce stigma about mental illness on college campuses.

Let me make clear that I am not in any way saying that everyone should be able to overcome traumatic experiences if they try hard enough. Some of it is luck. I have many resources that other people do not, for which I am thankful, but I didn’t do anything to earn them.

Still, for me, finally acknowledging that I have lived through traumatic experiences doesn’t make me feel broken. It actually makes me appreciate how strong I am.

About Christy Barongan

I didn't know it at the time, but I wanted to be a psychologist so that I could figure out how to be normal. I think many people come to counseling for the same reason. What I've come to learn is that feeling good about myself is not about trying to be normal. It's about trying to be me. But it's a constant struggle for me, just like it is for everyone else. So I thought I would approach this task with openness and honesty and use myself as an example for how to practice self-acceptance.

5 responses »

  1. Everything is relative. It doesn’t matter is someone’s traumatic experience is “worse” than yours. What matters is what happens to you, that you do what you can to deal with it, and you have empathy for other survivors.

    Love,
    Janie

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  2. “In fact, resilience, post-traumatic growth, and grit are the new darlings of positive psychology.”

    Awareness of trauma and the damage it can cause must come first before an individual learns how to manage the effects of it—what’s commonly called PTSD.

    For instance, the life I was born into was normal to me as a child, who didn’t know any other lifestyle existed.

    My family lived in poverty. My mother and father both dropped out of high school at 14 during the Great Depression. My mother was abused by her father—exactly what that abuse was none of her three children knew for sure, but we know that she was abused and that her younger brother came to her defense at least once when he was half the size of their father.

    My father’s mother died soon after he was born and his father, broken hearted fell into a bottle and never climbed out so my father ended up being raised by an aunt who lived half a country away in California from where he’d been born in Indiana. My father also was an alcoholic and a gambler but he always found work and managed to pay the bills except for the one time he vanished for almost a year and we lost our home because there wasn’t any money to pay the property tax and my mother was recovering from cancer surgery.

    This was my world as a child, and it was normal to me.

    Then I went into the Marines out of high school and fought in Vietnam returning to the states with PTSD in 1966 and the term PTSD didn’t get into the books until the 1980s, and I didn’t even know there was treatment ingested to teach us how to manage our lives for it through the VA until after 2005.

    The life we live with all the trauma and abuse is normal until we discover it isn’t normal and then if we pay attention we discover that almost everyone if not everyone has had some or a lot of trauma and/or abuse in their life, so what is normal?

    I have a problem with the current politically correct term of “grit”, because now I think too many charlatans are taking advantage of that term. Grit can not be manufactured on an assembly line. Grit must come naturally just like self esteem must come naturally. Every time this country climbs on a politically-correct bandwagon built around an abstract idea like grit and self-esteem, I shudder.

    The best thing I think any parent can do is adopt an authoritative parenting style with their children and then be the best person that they can possible be by also avoiding addictions like food, drugs and booze.

    Like authoritarian parents, those with an authoritative parenting style establish rules and guidelines that their children are expected to follow. However, this parenting style is much more democratic. Authoritative parents are responsive to their children and willing to listen to questions. When children fail to meet the expectations, these parents are more nurturing and forgiving rather than punishing. Baumrind suggests that these parents “monitor and impart clear standards for their children’s conduct. They are assertive, but not intrusive and restrictive. Their disciplinary methods are supportive, rather than punitive. They want their children to be assertive as well as socially responsible, and self-regulated as well as cooperative” (1991).

    http://psychology.about.com/od/developmentalpsychology/a/parenting-style.htm

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    • I agree about the parenting style. I think like most things, resilience is probably part personality and part something that you can develop, just like someone’s level of happiness. And while I think it can be blaming the victim to tell them that they should be able to overcome trauma because everyone has had some trauma, I think it is worthwhile to encourage people to realize that they are strong, when they might have thought they were weak.

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