Tips For Fostering Resilience in Traumatic Times

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A friend recently asked me how I’m dealing with everything that is happening in the United States right now. As foreign-born U.S. citizen (my parents were living abroad when they had me) with ties to people from all over the globe, I’ve been worried about the state of the world ever since I was old enough to be aware of what was happening in it. Since the election, and especially since the inauguration, the news has been filled with fresh horrors every day. It’s overwhelming, and things show no signs of letting up. I’ve found myself reaching for all of my resources to assimilate and cope with what is happening.

I study the history of trauma psychiatry, which means that I am often immersed in rough material ranging from oral histories to case studies of clinical work done with survivors of wars, mass disasters, and genocide. I’ve also spent years volunteering in rape crisis centers, working hotlines, and making emergency room visits.

To keep doing what I feel is important work, I’ve developed some strategies for fostering resilience that have been coming in handy lately. Here’s what I told my friend.

Understand What Trauma Is

Many associate the concept of trauma with extreme events, although traumatization can happen on a scale ranging from mild to severe. I take as my starting point that the traumatic impedes our sense of being able to function safely in the world. (This is working definition, rather than a clinical one; while PTSD is a clinical diagnosis, trauma also has social, cultural, and political dimensions.) This can include living through dangerous circumstances, but in a milder sense it can also include constant exposure to trauma, violence, and other disturbing material (the term for this is vicarious traumatization).

Having to function for an extended period in a state of prolonged stress is one factor that leads to traumatization, but there are practices that foster resilience. My study of trauma has given me useful frameworks to think about both my work and what is happening now, and has informed many of the coping mechanisms I'll talk about below.

Know That What You're Feeling Is Probably Grief

Grief is a state of upset in response to terrible loss. A few days into the post-election fog, I realized that the last time I’d felt this way was when someone had died. So many of us have had to renegotiate meaning in a world where values that we hold dear as Americans are turned upside down, where science is no longer a standard for informed decision-making, and where people feel no shame in saying things that would have been unthinkable a year ago.

Erich Lindemann did groundbreaking work in the 1940s on grief, which he defined not strictly as bereavement, but upset in response to profound loss in which we renegotiate the meaning in our lives. In the mid 1960s, Gerald Caplan defined crisis as “an upset in a steady state” in which a person finds that their existing coping mechanisms and problem-solving abilities are no longer adequate. Working through grief and moving through the crisis involves not only mourning the loss, but also developing new tools and inner resources.

Acknowledge That These Are Extraordinary Times

Now that the boundaries have been breached, the losses feel catastrophic and they’re coming daily. So much that we have fought for is being taken from us, and vulnerable groups are being targeted for attack. Law and order hasn’t broken down, but we live under a constant cloud of uncertainty. However, like people in a war situation, we must be practical about how we respond to these setbacks. We have to expect them, and can't get mired in them, because we cannot be effective if we are in tatters. The question is how to move forward in these extraordinary circumstances, especially if they are going to continue for years.

Know That Dealing With Difficult Material Regularly Is Like Taking A Low-Dose Poison

In doing rape crisis work, or in reading about Vietnam, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, sexual violence, and the litany of other ways human beings have been horrible to each other, I found that I had to be careful not to overload on material that underscored how unsafe the world has been for so many. Spacing out my intake over time and being careful to not take too much in at once helped, otherwise its toxic effects would set in.

This means: do not saturate yourself with the news. While it’s important to stay informed, it’s also important to set limits. You can do that by choosing issues and actions to focus on (five calls and one demonstration a week, for instance), and how much you read and watch, and when.

Counteract The Constant Exposure To Upsetting Material

Depression and runaway anxiety are real dangers. This is especially true if you are among the groups that are being targeted, but for many (especially those who understand history), the betrayal of so much that we hold dear as Americans has also been devastating. Offsetting the effects of the distress that so many of us feel now is vital if we’re going to retain our ability to fight.

To that end, remember to do things that remind you that the world isn’t all divisiveness, disunity, and hate. Notice, focus on, and celebrate the positive in your life. Even though having a negative bias in thinking is common, you can train yourself out of it. Intentionally appreciate what is good: people, relationships, comforts, interactions, institutions, and all the other things that make your life better.

Cultivate Community

In her powerful and influential 1992 book, trauma theorist Judith Herman outlined the stages of recovery from Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The final stage of recovery that she writes about involves reconnecting with community, and acting back on the world to make it safer. “Helplessness and isolation are the core experiences of psychological trauma,” she wrote. “Empowerment and reconnection are the core experiences of recovery.”

I attended a vigil on campus for those killed in the attack on the Quebec mosque and the mosque in Texas that was burned down. A friend of mine, a Muslim woman, stood up in front of the crowd and talked about how distressed and anxious she had been in the past weeks, and how difficult it was be to away from her family in these troubled times. She talked about how her mentors at the Divinity School had reminded her that service can be a profound and powerful way to heal a broken heart, and then offered to be a resource for anyone who needed a safe space, to spend time with an older sister, or just to talk.

In a time when so many of us feel betrayed and abandoned by our country, when divisions are being created and exploited by the powerful, community and connection is especially important. Reach out to those who need it and surround yourself with people who renew your faith and strength to act.

Remember: You Are Only As Helpless As You Believe Yourself To Be

When I started doing rape crisis work, I was terrified before my first night on call. What if I screwed up and made things worse? As soon as I arrived in the emergency room, I realized something that has carried me through my work since: that the fact of my presence made a bad situation better, and at the very least, prevented it from getting worse. Emergency room advocates often act as a buffer between survivors and police, hospital staff, and family members — this can be something as simple as reminding people who are there to do a job to slow down and ask the survivor’s permission before doing procedures, or remember that the survivor has just been through the worst experience of their life.

The mere fact of your presence can have a positive impact on vulnerable people. Making a stand, taking action, or reaching out can make a bad situation better, even if it doesn’t feel like it. This can be as significant for the person taking the action. One of the biggest predictors of whether someone goes on to be traumatized by something is a sense of helplessness or horror in a state of fear, and taking action can offset this. Reach out to those who are more vulnerable than you. Donate to organizations that advocate for people who are most at risk. The ACLU has received record donations, and I recently learned about a group called Muslim Advocates, who provide free legal representation to people who are being targeted or profiled. Volunteer, call, donate, host fundraisers and letter writing parties, or simply reach out to the vulnerable people in your lives and communities to let them know they have allies — just don’t fall into helpless inaction.

Stay Involved, But Maintain Your Center

Many organizations have popped up to guide those who want to act. You can sign up for daily alerts with the Daily Action Network or commit to making five calls a day. There are many resources that I could list here, but your biggest asset is your inner space. Cultivate it and protect it, because however long this lasts, you cannot let your inner state be at the mercy of what is happening in Washington, DC. If we are in this for the long-haul, and if we are to avoid burnout or becoming jaded, we need to learn to draw certainty and comfort from each other and from within. For me, this started with a decision to guard my inner space.

You won’t miss anything vital if you turn off your phone, radio, and television for an hour a day. Stay involved, but even as you engage with things that bring you into confrontation with the outrageous and the horrible, remember to connect with things that uplift and bring you hope, because cultivating resilience is a powerful act of resistance in times like these.

Don’t Neglect The Essentials

The usual advice about remembering to eat, exercise, and get enough sleep applies here too. You already know how to do this, but just in case, here is a useful article written for mental health workers.

I don’t always get this right. I alternate some days between a masterly non-attachment and deep, existential panic. But it is a practice, and it gets easier with time.