Trauma Resilience

David Treleaven presented on the topic, Resilience to Trauma, at the recent Embodiment Festival 2023.   He made the point that while meditation and mindfulness practices can help some people recover from trauma, meditation may not work in individual cases.  He argued that suggesting “more” meditation is not the answer – we have to recognise the complexity of trauma and how it plays out in different people’s lives.  Individual’s hypervigilance as a result of trauma may impede their capacity to be still and reflect and they may find themselves continuously oscillating between a trauma response and temporary wellness – impeding their capacity to develop resilience.

David commented that trauma can create a level of rigidity in our response to stressors.  He noted that in some cultures such as Australia, Ireland, and South Africa, humour plays an important role in helping people to develop resilience.  Mark Walsh, Festival organiser and interviewer, commented that after undertaking trauma recovery work in Ukraine, he realised that humour is an integral part of the resilience of the Ukrainian people.  It was noted, too, that the current President, Zelenskyy, was previously a comedian and actor.

When Mark asked David what advice he would give to young people in these present challenging times, David suggested that it is important to undertake a regular practice that builds personal resilience.  He maintained that this is very much a personal choice but whatever practice you choose, to do so purposefully and “don’t be afraid to make a mistake”.   This wide-ranging discussion increased my interest in the relationship between trauma and resilience.  I decided to explore David’s podcast series, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, where he interviews trauma experts to explore the intersection of mindfulness, meditation and traumatic stress.

Trauma and Resilience

I was immediately attracted to David’s podcast interview with Anjuli Sherin on the topic, Resilience, Mindfulness and Trauma RecoveryAnjuli is a Pakistani American who specialises in trauma recovery with families, especially members of immigrant families.  She is a highly qualified and experienced therapist who offers individual therapy sessions, healing groups, guided meditations, training and her Joy Blog.  Anjuli is the author of Joyous Resilience – A Path to Individual Healing and Collective Thriving in an Inequitable WorldThe interview is very rich in its discussion of resilience and Anjuli’s book, because she shares insights from her own life experience and the resilience journey of her therapy clients.  David, himself an expert in trauma and trauma recovery, acknowledged that he learnt some new things as a result of the interview.

Anjuli begins with recounting her own trauma recovery journey, highlighting the trauma she experienced as an 18 year old, female immigrant to America.  Not only did she feel totally disconnected from her new cultural environment, she was also carrying the scars of intergenerational trauma resulting from living with her family in the “systems of oppression” present in Pakistan as she was growing up.  She found herself alone in America with no “compass”, family or community, while still in her early 20’s.  

Anjuli experienced what Bruce Perry describes as a “sensitised stress response” which led to overreactivity and maladaptive behaviour.  She describes her trauma as translating into “anger, fear and violence”.  She found that she did not cope with the stressors in intimate relationships, partly because she could not access, and express, her feelings and needs.  She was experiencing “emotional dysregulation” where she lacked control over her emotional responses. Her reactivity in her relationships led to more stress and feelings of shame.  Anjuli describes this trauma experience as the ”cycle of trauma” – the “vulnerable self” experiences stressors that lead to reactivity which, in turn, increases a sense of vulnerability, fear and helplessness that, again, heightens reactivity and maladaptation.  The trauma cycle results in negative self-evaluation, avoidance, and  questioning “what’s wrong with me?” – creating a further “cycle of suffering”.  An alternative mindset explores “what happened to you?” and seeks to understand trauma, its complexity and impacts.

The ”circle of resilience”

Anjuli describes the trauma recovery journey experienced by herself and her clients as a journey towards, and into, the “circle of resilience”.  This is a process, not a set state, that involves developing or accessing “four aspects of self” that enable the development of resilience and facilitate trauma recovery.   These aspects of self replace self-criticism, self-neglect and denial of feelings.  Anjuli maintains that people who have experienced trauma are often not able to use the “tools of resilience” (such as mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi or exercise) in a sustainable way because of their “vulnerable self’ and being stuck in their reactivity and sense of helplessness.

Anjuli noted that in her early stages of arrival in America she ignored advice to seek a therapist to help her with her trauma recovery.  It was only after the stressors she was experiencing increased (e.g. graduation and relationship stress) that she heeded advice to seek therapeutic assistance.  She had been mired in her negative self-evaluation and her maladaptive behaviour up until that time. 

The “four aspects of self” for the resilience journey

Through her own therapy and consulting with her clients, Anjuli identified what she calls the “four aspects of self” that enable anyone who has experienced trauma to undertake the resilience journey.  She found that her own therapy “changed everything” and helped her to develop resilience by providing “foundational teaching” to shift from emotional dysregulation to emotional regulation, to move from stress and shame to self-care, and to develop “healthy control and agency over actions, emotions and relationships”.  Her reactivity diminished and she was able to understand her own needs and ask for what she needed.

During therapy she developed the “four aspects of self” that enabled her to enter the path, and move along the journey, to healing and resilience, thus enabling her to utilise the tools of resilience, such as mindfulness and exercise, in a sustainable way.  The four aspects described in depth by Anjuli in her book are:

  1. Nurturing – self-talk that recognises feelings (naming her feelings) and “turns to those feelings with attunement and loving kindness”, leading to acceptance
  2. Protection – establishing healthy boundaries and limits
  3. Play and creativity – accessing the things that bring pleasure
  4. Awe and Gratitude – through the experience of beauty and “interdependence  with the larger world”.

Anjuli explained that these four aspects of self, enabled her to let go of her “vulnerable self” and to acknowledge that she is able to deal with challenging emotions such as grief and fear.  She stated that these four states “are not built outside of relationship”.  She reinforced the critical role of supportive relationships in the journey to recovery and resilience.  Brooke Blurton in her memoir, Big Love: Reclaiming myself, my people, my country, highlighted the relationship orientation of her Aboriginal culture and its role in helping her through multiple sources of trauma to heal and develop resilience.  She experienced intergenerational trauma, poverty, homelessness, sexual abuse and racism, yet throughout she was sustained by the “constant love” of her addicted mother and the love of her family (especially her Nan and siblings), the extended family of “Aunties” and “Uncles” and what she calls “the mob”.  Anjuli reinforced supportive relationships as a “source of resilience” in that they provide protection, nurturing and a readiness to listen and positively affirm a person’s experience and emotions and offer reassurance that they “are not alone”.

Reflection

Supportive relationships appear consistently as a key element for trauma recovery and the development of resilience.  When I reflect on my own experience of recovery from personal trauma, I am able to acknowledge the central role played by nurturing, protective relationships.  Anjuli’s book promotes personal and collective healing and recovery, and offers supportive practices and insightful case studies that facilitate the development of resilience and encourage joyful thriving.

Resources that can help us achieve trauma resilience, and the ability to cope with life’s challenges, include the Healing Trauma Program offered by Sounds True which involves 13 key trauma recovery experts such as David Treleaven.  Sounds True also offer a shorter course, Trauma and the Embodied Brain, facilitated by Bonnie Badenoch, PhD.  Bonnie is the author of the book, The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.

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Image by Alex Hu from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Perspectives on Recovering from Trauma

Trauma is a complex area and the process of recovery is rarely linear.  It often involves progress/regress over an extended period, sometimes a lifetime.  Various experts have studied trauma and its impacts from multiple perspectives, drawing on research, clinical practice and reflection on their personal experience.  They have adopted different approaches to facilitating recovery from trauma, recognising that the experience of a traumatic event and its subsequent impacts vary from individual to individual.  Health Means bring many of these conceptual and practical perspectives together in their Biology of Trauma 2.0 Summit.

Recovering from trauma and its impacts

There can be differential impacts for people witnessing the same traumatising event, such as a mass shooting, sudden death of a close relative or a car accident.  The depth of trauma response, according to Bruce Perry, is influenced by the timing, pattern and intensity of the initiating event as well as the degree of mitigating factors, especially “relational health” – the quality of connectedness and of supportive relationships.  In his view, “connectedness can counterbalance adversity”.  Improving relational health with a therapist as well as supportive others is a key element in recovering from trauma.  Dr. Elena Villanueva provides a pathway to relational health by offering a group-based recovery process, incorporating facilitation by health experts and a personal care plan.  Her holistic process is offered in the form of a Mind/Body/Energy Program.  Bruce Perry is a co-author with Oprah Winfrey of the book, What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing

Bessel van der Kolk places considerable emphasis on the “visceral impact” of trauma – the generation of deep inner feelings.  He argues that recovery processes should focus on the “emotional brain”, rather than the “rational brain’.  He maintains that the mind-body influence is bi-directional and that a person can  experience “visceral overload” when exposed to a traumatic event.  He suggests employing healing modalities that recognise the mind-body-emotion connection, such as movement (e.g., Tai Chi), singing or chanting, and a wide range of mindfulness practices.  Bessel is the author of The Body Keeps the Score: brain and body in the transformation of trauma.

Dr. Arielle Schwartz draws on neuropsychotherapy when treating traumatised people.  This integrated mind-body approach incorporates psychotherapy practices along with neuroscience findings. She contends that it is possible to develop resilience through trauma recovery.  Her approach is multi-modal, incorporating practices as diverse as exploration of family history, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic therapy and mindfulness.  Relationship building, positive psychology, reflection, reprocessing and resilience development are integral to her approach.  Arielle is the author of The Post-Traumatic Guidebook: Practical Mind-Body Tools to Heal Trauma, Foster Resilience and Awaken Your Potential.

Gabor Maté agrees with the approach of exploring what happened to a traumatised person, rather than trying to find out “what’s wrong with them”.  He also adopts a non-judgmental approach to addiction, asserting that many people who suffer from addiction have experienced trauma in their life.  In line with this thinking, he adopts and teaches an approach he calls “compassionate inquiry” which among other things helps a person to discover their “negative self-messaging” resulting from the experience of trauma.  He aims to help the traumatised person to confront and name the underlying pain resulting from an identified trauma.  He also employs a holistic approach incorporating “body-work”, mindfulness, connection with nature and self-care approaches such as proper nutrition and stress management.  Gabor is the author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

David Treleaven, creator of the Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast, discusses the importance of understanding the window of tolerance when working with people who have experienced trauma.  The window of tolerance is the level of arousal that an individual can tolerate in a productive way – they are able to share, process, and receive information when they are within this personally tolerable zone.   Trauma, such as that suffered by some people during the pandemic, reduces the window of tolerance.  David stresses the need to offer people who have been traumatised a choice of meditation anchors to avoid unconsciously triggering a trauma response.  He is also acutely aware of the need to ensure that mindfulness practices are accessible for people with disabilities, especially physical disabilities. David is the author of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing.

There is widespread recognition that various forms of mindfulness can assist in trauma recovery.  However, researchers and clinical  practitioners such as Sam Himelstein, who has dedicated many years to working with traumatised teenagers, highlight the need to tread cautiously and sensitively when dealing with people who have experienced trauma.  Sam offers insightful principles and guidelines for trauma-informed mindfulness.  He found too that in some situations a conventional approach to mindfulness would not work as it would take a traumatised teenager outside their window of tolerance.  He found, for example, that listening to music together built a connection and a trusting relationship so that the impacted teenager felt free to begin sharing both their trauma experience and what was happening for them.  Sam is the author of Trauma-Informed Mindfulness with Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.

Reflection

Recovery from trauma frequently involves some form of somatic therapy such as somatic meditation, resting in your body or resting in your breath.  This is often supplemented by other therapies that address the visceral impact of trauma, negative self-thoughts, supportive relationships and the flow of energy in the body.  Overall, the complexity of trauma suggests the need for a holistic approach, as adopted by most of the practitioners discussed in this post.  Health practitioners are becoming increasingly creative as they develop a deepened understanding of trauma and its impacts.

Underpinning many of the approaches discussed is mindfulness practice in one form or another.  It is acknowledged that as we grow in mindfulness, we can identify our own traumas and their impacts, strengthen our connectedness and relationships, build resilience and adopt a positive mindset.  Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor and author of The Choice: A True Story of Hope, encourages us to explore our “inner landscape” and move from a victim mindset to true freedom.

Sounds True offers a Healing Trauma Program conducted by 13 of the world’s top trauma recovery experts including Gabor Maté, Jeffrey Rutstein, Peter Levine and Arielle Schwartz. The program offers practices, skills and tools that have proven effectiveness. The time frame for the program allows you to lean new behaviours and put them into practice, as well as offering Q & A sessions to explore what worked for you and any blockages to your progress.

Sounds True also offers a shorter 8 week course, Trauma and the Embodied Brain, conducted by Bonnie Badenoch, PhD – therapist, consultant, trainer and author of The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.