NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: The following is an abridged transcript from a discussion that took place on the Shrink Tank Podcast. The following includes commentary from four mental health professionals.

While some people’s lives are negatively altered by trauma, some people are changed for the better. These individuals can use their trauma as a drive to become the best person they can be. 

In the field of psychology, this drive is known as resilience.

So, What Is Resilience?

A recent article from the University of Southern California takes a look at what sets people apart when it comes to traumatic experiences. Why can trauma and stress leave one person reeling while someone else may coast through the same troubles with just a shrug and a smile?

At the Resilience Lab at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, the scientists are studying groups that range from troubled youth to cancer survivors to understand how we succeed at life despite significant adversity. 

Findings from this research show that developing PTSD after trauma is the less likely outcome, and in fact, posttraumatic growth and resilience are the norm. 

While it may be surprising to learn this, it kind of makes perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint. As humans, we’ve all experienced varying degrees of trauma. Humans who have experienced some of the most intense forms of trauma are going to grow past their experiences—and these very experiences make them stronger. 

To some, posttraumatic growth is not usually the standard effect after experiencing trauma. 

One thing that is often overlooked is that there is a subset of people that do not have this sort of growth mindset from a trauma. What are the key factors that contribute to the ability to move forward? For some, it’s faith. For others, it’s social connectedness. 

How we talk to ourselves about a situation can determine how we rewrite our story. While re-writing your story, it is important to do so without minimizing the impact of our trauma. Most people wrongly assume that resilience and posttraumatic growth equate to the elimination of all pain, suffering or hurt from a trauma.

This is not the case.

It All Comes Down to How an Individual Can Live Through Their Trauma

Traumatic experiences do not have to define an individual, nor affect their ability to function. Living through your trauma is embracing an optimistic outlook on life, and attaining a meaningful and purposeful life.

Resilience just means that it doesn’t swallow them almost on a day by day basis. 

In the history of psychology, particularly clinical psychology, the focus has been more on the medical model—where you figure out what’s wrong with someone and how to treat it. It’s only been the last quarter-century or so that focus has shifted to what is right with people—what helps people grow, and what helps people become more resilient. 

This idea of posttraumatic growth comes out of this very tradition known as positive psychology.

It’s relatively early in the study of this kind of modern psychology, but we’re finding that there are lots of people who go through tough things who can become stronger versions of themselves. 

On the other side of that, we’re in the process of identifying what are the factors that predict that. 

There’s a concept in psychology called radical acceptance, in which the goal is not to stop having a feeling or stop having an experience, but to make room for it—and then to radically accept what’s happened.

Similar to resilience, it’s all about taking an experience and making room for it in your life rather than it consuming you.


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