Resilience in the Face of Trauma

By Andrew Shatte

In our unpredictable world, one of life’s harsher truths is that sometimes, bad things happen. We endure personal tragedies, like losing a loved one, battling an illness, or experiencing violence. We’re affected, directly or indirectly, by the large-scale devastation that plagues the news, from crippling natural disasters, like the hurricanes that tore through the Caribbean and parts of the United States or the earthquake that rocked Mexico, to horrific acts of terror, such as the mass shooting in Las Vegas and attack in Manchester, and political turmoil, like nuclear tests in North Korea. These high-stress events trigger a specific emotional response known as trauma. With an estimated 70 percent of American adults having experienced at least one traumatic event, if you’re struggling right now, know you are not alone—and healing is possible.

At meQuilibrium, we’re often asked about what to do in the aftermath of trauma. How do you stay resilient? What’s the best way to cope? There’s no quick fix for recovery, but there are ways to move through the process of healing with more ease by focusing on your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Here’s how.

Physical Wellbeing There is a close relationship between our mental and physical health—when one suffers, so does the other. The opposite is also true: Staying healthy helps you stay resilient. That’s why it’s crucial to get enough sleep, exercise, and nutrition when coping with trauma. Sleep is often the first to go when we’re stressed, but it keeps our brains sharp and our emotions level. Without enough rest, you won’t have the mental or physical stamina to do what you need and want to do, so fight the urge to skimp on sleep. Here’s more on how to get the rest you need.

The same is true for exercise: One study on exercise and depression found that regular exercise had a near-instant positive impact on participants’ mood, helped alleviate long-term depression, and reduced the likelihood of panic attacks. Read more about getting active and happy here. And it’s especially important to eat well, because chronic stress actually robs your body of critical nutrients. Like building up muscle to get fit and strong, proper nutrition fuels your body with the strength it needs to keep moving forward. Read more about healthy eating here.

Mental Wellbeing Trauma has a huge impact on our mental wellbeing because it shatters our Iceberg Beliefs—deeply held, subconscious beliefs we’ve had since childhood—about how the world is or should be. We create rules that enforce order and reject chaos, such as “Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people,” because we need to believe that the world is safe. When tragedy strikes, our sense of safety is disrupted. So, what do you do when your belief system falls apart? You examine the rubble—then rebuild.

A balanced belief system is a strong belief system. They key is to be a realistic optimist, combining a positive outlook with a matter-of-fact perspective. You can’t always plan, but you can prepare. Identify what steps you can take that are in your control, like getting regular safety checks on your car or preparing a disaster kit. Acknowledge that yes, randomness is a part of life, but there is value in this randomness. It shines a light on what truly matters, bringing your priorities and values into clear focus. Imagine being able to predict every moment of your life—the boredom would be unbearable. Uncertainty comes with risk, but also great reward.

Emotional Wellbeing Self-care is a key part of recovering from trauma because it keeps you emotionally healthy. Our brains are wired to scan more for the negative than the positive, and the experience of trauma pushes us even more in this direction. So it’s important to remain emotionally even-handed by injecting your life with as much positivity as you can manage in the wake of trauma. Purposefully seek out comedy, beauty, or pursue an enjoyable hobby. There’s truth behind the old saying about laughter being the best medicine: It can release endorphins, the brain’s “feel good” chemicals, and research suggests that a good laugh may even increase your tolerance to pain.

It’s also essential to stay connected to yourself, others, and the world at large. Find an outlet to communicate your experience, such as drawing or writing. A strong social network or community will help carry you through the tougher moments and savor the wins, so don’t hesitate to the reach out to family and friends or join a support group. Build a sense of purpose by connecting to something larger than yourself, be it your spirituality, faith, or a mission to create meaningful change. Avoid making major life decisions, which are stressful in their own right and harder to take on when you need to devote your resources elsewhere. Perhaps most importantly, give yourself enough time to adjust, heal, and grow.

Note: Recovery will take time, but you should seek professional help if these feelings aren’t going away or can’t get through your daily responsibilities.

meQuilibrium Chief Science Officer and Co-founder Andrew Shatte, Ph.D., is a leading expert on resilience, a Brookings Institution fellow, a professor at the College of Medicine at University of Arizona, and a TED speaker.

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