An article we read in class this week–”Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience”–brings attention to our commonly held conceptualization of grief as the appropriate response to trauma. In so doing, we as a society fail to appreciate the fact that the majority of people exposed to trauma respond with resilience.
More alarming, though, is that psychologists have tended to pathologize resilience as an unhealthy reaction to trauma (Bonnano, 2004). According to the grief work approach that has prevailed in the psychotherapy world, it is deemed necessary and appropriate to ‘work through’ the negative emotions and thoughts associated with grief if one wants to resume a healthy life again. It has been posited that failing to display grief and ‘work through it’ within close proximity to the traumatic event will ultimately result in a delayed grief reaction. In reality, empirical research has not supported these contentions. In fact, research shows that most people respond to trauma in a resilient fashion, and that grief work is not always effective and may even be maladaptive (Kato & Mann, 1999; Neimeyer, 2000). Hence, ‘absent grief’ isn’t problematic–as the grief work theorists would have us believe; instead ‘resilience’ is likely a healthy coping mechanism in the face of trauma.
In outlining the factors that contribute towards resilience, George Bonanno mentions research on the trait of ‘hardiness’ (Bonanno, 2004). According to X, “hardiness consists of three dimensions: being committed to ﬁnding meaningful purpose in life, the belief that one can inﬂuence one’s surroundings and the outcome of events, and the belief that one can learn and grow from both positive and negative life experiences.” I think this personality dimension is extremely critical in helping people deal with traumatic and difficult experiences in life and is very much neglected as a virtuous trait in our modern society. We live in an era when individuals seek to maximize immediate gratification and minimize exposure to pain and suffering through distractions like television and pharmaceutical interventions. For most people, the prospect of enduring a difficult, trying circumstance with the idea that it could make you better off is probably quite foreign and counterintuitive.
However, the concept of posttraumatic growth–in which people experience a meaningful improvement in their life after a traumatic or difficult situation, above and beyond a return to baseline–has been discussed since ancient times. The notion that suffering can yield powerful transformations and spiritual growth appears in ancient texts from many of the world’s religions. Victor Frankl’s A Man’s Search for Meaning and his theory of logotherapy have been an incredible contribution to this literature. In even the worst of possible situations as a prisoner in a holocaust camp, Frankl was able to find meaning in his suffering and difficult everyday experiences, and in so doing make his plight more manageable.
The opportunity that trauma offers us for a spiritually enriching or transformative experience is an incredible offer. To cultivate and ensure resilience, we should acknowledge the opportunity trauma is offering us to grow spiritually so that we can be most receptive to it when the chance presents itself.
Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events?.American psychologist, 59(1), 20.
Kato, P. M., & Mann, T. (1999). A synthesis of psychological interventions for the bereaved. Clinical Psychology Review, 19, 275–296.
Neimeyer, R. A. (2000). Searching for the meaning of meaning: Grief therapy and the process of reconstruction. Death Studies, 24, 541–558.