Stairs Spiral Rise Reslienz

Hope and resilience after childhood trauma

In 2008, the American Psychological Association published “The Road to Resilience” to help people deal with difficult events that change their lives. The death of a loved one, loss of a job, serious illness, terrorist attacks, and other traumatic events are very challenging life experiences. Many people react to such circumstances with a flood of strong emotions and a sense of uncertainty.

The APA brochure was a response to trauma due to September 11 and intended to help readers with taking their own road to resilience. Its information described resilience and some factors that affect how people deal with hardship. Much of the brochure focused on developing and using a personal strategy for enhancing resilience. As the mentioned 10 steps towards individual resilience apply to the personal growth of childhood trauma survivors as well, they should be presented in this post.

Yet, people generally adapt to life-changing situations and stressful conditions over time. What enables them to do so? It involves resilience, an ongoing process that requires time and effort and engages people in taking a number of steps.

What is resilience?

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources
of stress— such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.

Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and individuals’ efforts to rebuild their lives.

Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.

Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that anyone can learn and develop.

Factors in resilience

A combination of factors contributes to resilience. Many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust provide role models and offer encouragement and solace to help bolster a person’s resilience.
Several additional factors are associated with resilience, including:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
  • Skills in communication and problem-solving.
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

All of these are factors that people can develop in themselves.

Strategies for building resilience

Developing resilience is a personal journey. People do not all react the same to traumatic and stressful life events. An approach to building resilience that works for one person might not work for another. People use varying strategies. Some variations may reflect cultural differences. A person’s culture might have an impact on how he or she communicates feelings and deals with adversity — for example, whether and how a person connects with significant others, including extended family members and community resources. With growing cultural diversity, the public has greater access to a number of different approaches to building resilience.

Some or many of the ways to build resilience in the following pages may be appropriate to consider in developing your personal strategy.

10 Ways to build your resilience

  1. Make connections. Good relationships with close family members, friends or others are essential. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience. Some people find that being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support and can help reclaim hope. Assisting others in their time of need can benefit the helper too.
  2. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. We can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but we can change how we interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might feel better as you deal with difficult situations.
  3. Accept that change is a part of living. Specific goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help us focus on circumstances you can alter.
  4. Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on unachievable tasks, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?”
  5. Take decisive actions. Act on adverse situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions rather than completely detaching from problems and stresses and wishing they would just disappear.
  6. Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect due to their struggle with loss. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported better relationships, a greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, an increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality and a heightened appreciation for life.
  7. Nurture a positive view of yourself. Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.
  8. Keep things in perspective. Even when facing harrowing events, consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.
  9. Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables us to expect good things to happen. Try visualizing what you want rather than worrying about what you fear.
  10. Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of ourselves helps to keep our mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

Additional ways of strengthening resilience may be helpful. For example, some people write about their deepest thoughts and feelings related to trauma or other stressful events in their life. Meditation and spiritual practices help some people build connections and restore hope.

The key is to identify ways that are likely to work well for you as part of your own personal strategy for fostering resilience.

Learning from our past

Focusing on experiences and sources of personal strength can help us learn about what strategies for building resilience might work for us. By exploring answers to the following questions about ourselves and our reactions to challenging life events, we may discover how to respond effectively to difficult situations.
Consider the following:

  • What kinds of events have been most stressful for me?
  • How have those events typically affected me?
  • Have I found it helpful to think of important people in my life when I am distressed?
  • To whom have I reached out for support in working through a traumatic or stressful experience?
  • What have I learned about myself and my interactions with others during challenging times?
  • Has it been helpful for me to assist someone else going through a similar experience?
  • Have I been able to overcome obstacles, and if so, how?
  • What has helped make me feel more hopeful about the future?

Staying flexible

Letting ourselves experience strong emotions, and also realizing when we may need to avoid experiencing them at times to continue functioning.

Stepping forward and acting to deal with your problems, meet daily living demands, and then stepping back to rest and reenergize yourself.

Spending time with loved ones to gain support and encouragement and also nurturing ourselves.

Relying on others and also relying on ourselves.

Resilience involves maintaining flexibility and balance in our life as we deal with stressful circumstances and traumatic events. This happens in several ways, including:

Seek help for your journey

To help summarize several of the main points, think of resilience as similar to taking a raft trip down a river.

We may encounter rapids, turns, slow water, and shallows on a river. As in life, the changes we experience affect each of us differently along the way.

Travelling the river helps to have knowledge about it and experience in dealing with it. Our journey should be guided by a plan, a strategy that we consider likely to work well for us.

Perseverance and trust in our ability to work our way around boulders and other obstacles are important. We can gain courage and insight by successfully navigating through white water. Trusted companions who accompany us on the journey can be especially helpful for dealing with rapids, upstream currents and other difficult stretches of the river.

We can always climb out to rest alongside the river. But to get to the end of your journey, we need to get back on the raft and continue.


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