What Determines Thriving? Building Resilience in the Face of Collective Trauma

What Determines Thriving? Building Resilience in the Face of Collective Trauma

Our levels of resilience are determined by a combination of genetics and childhood experience. At one time, thought leaders in the mental health field believed that, at a certain point early on, those levels were set in stone. Some children bounced back more quickly despite adverse conditions, others did not, and there wasn’t much that could be done about it. 

In recent decades, however, researchers have come to understand that there are certain key protective factors that can be developed even in those who might not have come by them “naturally.” We can build our resilience “muscles” regardless of age or past experiences. This understanding has becoming increasingly relevant as trauma becomes more widespread—and is of utmost importance as we navigate the stressors of one of the most traumatic periods in modern history. 

In this webinar and accompanying article with Newport Healthcare’s Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC, CCTP, Newport’s Chief Experience Officer and former Vice President of Clinical Outreach, and Ryan Fedoroff, M.Ed, our National Director of Education, you’ll learn how to recognize the manifestations of trauma and collective trauma on a variety of levels—physical, cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and behavioral. The webinar discussion also covers protective factors that support people of all ages in coping with trauma, and provide tools for building resilience in yourself and guiding others to do the same.

Contrary to what experts once believed, it is possible to instill the factors that protect us against trauma, even if we didn’t grow up with them.

Trauma as Self-Protection 

Trauma is a set of responses to a deeply disturbing event or ongoing experience that represents a real or perceived threat to our well-being. In essence, it is the activation of an unconscious defense mechanism; in the same way that we pull our hand back when touching something hot, we withdraw psychologically from that which causes us pain. “These reactions are the same for an unconscious emotional process as they are for a physiological process, and they are ‘normal’ in response to abnormal events,” explains Kristin Wilson.

Traumatic experiences are typically referred to as acute, chronic, complex, or vicarious. The majority of trauma, Wilson says, is relational—resulting from a disruption of our connection with primary caregivers in childhood. What we are currently facing is a phenomenon known as collective trauma, defined as a frightening and life-threatening occurrence or situation that creates extreme distress and affects a large group of people. 

Whatever the cause or type of trauma, the result is the same: disconnection from self, others, and the world around us. This disconnection may manifest in a myriad of different ways, from somatic issues (headaches, stomachaches, sleep problems), to hypervigilance and avoidance, to shame and grief. Hopelessness, helplessness, anxiety, and depression are the most frequent byproducts of trauma.  

Collective Trauma in the Age of COVID

Wilson refers to the year 2020 as the “Trauma Trifecta.” The pandemic—coupled with civil unrest catalyzed in part by COVID’s disproportionate impact on communities of color—has impacted three of the major areas that contribute to well-being or lack of it: physical health and safety, social/emotional wellness, and our basic needs. As a result, mental health issues have skyrocketed among all demographics. Research by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) shows that, as of January 2021, 41 percent of adults were reporting anxiety or depression, as opposed to just 11 percent in 2019, with Black and Latinx adults reporting mental health symptoms at higher rates. Among young adults (ages 18–24), 56 percent report anxiety and/or depression, 25 percent report new or increased substance use, and a troubling 26 percent report suicidal thoughts. 

As for teens, a Harris Poll shows that seven out of 10 teens are currently struggling with their mental health. Studies show that this age group may be more vulnerable to trauma and stress hormones, because the adolescent brain is still developing. However, thus far researchers have found it difficult to measure the long-term impact of collective trauma on young people. For example, there are few studies on the developmental effects of 9/11 on children who experienced it; because all American children were exposed to that tragedy, researchers were unable to identify a control group to use for comparison. 

Moreover, collective trauma doesn’t end when the traumatic event is over. According to collective trauma theory, such events can permanently shift the way those affected see themselves, as individuals and as a society or group, which passes on a collective memory of trauma through the generations. 

The Keys to Resilience

Because trauma results in disconnection, the antidote is connection. Therefore, the most powerful protective factors in guarding against trauma and its long-term effects are authentic relationships and supportive communities. For young people, the nurturance that builds resilience can come not only from parents but also extended family, therapists, educators, coaches, and mentors. For some children and adults, the social support that builds resilience comes from religious communities or other groups of like-minded people. 

Another key protective factor is stability—the sense of security that comes from routines, structure, and, for children and teens, consistent boundaries and appropriate consequences for trespassing those boundaries. Positive coping skills complement protective experiences by providing ways to negotiate daily stressors, while also strengthening resilience over time. Here are some of the practices proven to build resilience:

  • Compassionate self-talk: A study with teens and young adults shows that resilience and self-compassion go hand in hand. 
  • Yoga, meditation, and conscious breathing: Mindfulness practices increase what’s known as vagal tone, a measurement connected to the vagus nerve, which is correlated with stronger stress resilience.
  • Savoring the good: Research done with university students showed that consciously practicing gratitude and appreciation increases resilience and positive emotions.
  • Time in nature: Being outdoors reduces levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.
  • Exercise: Physical activity reduces depression symptoms and boosts energy and mood.
  • Self-expression: Art-making, music, and journaling have been shown to help people effectively manage stress and release trauma.

In addition, for those suffering from trauma, anxiety, and depression, it’s essential to seek trauma-informed care. The most effective treatment addresses early childhood trauma and attachment wounds while also building the resilience and coping skills needed to navigate even the most challenging times. 

Kristin Wilson has been working in the treatment field since 1997. She is a licensed clinician and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional, and holds a Master’s degree in psychology and Creative Arts Therapies. 

Ryan Fedoroff brings a decade of academic leadership and classroom experience to her role overseeing Newport Healthcare’s academic programming. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Education Administration.

Community of Behavioral Health Leaders

During uncertain times, our goal within our behavioral health leaders is to foster a nationwide community push for clinical excellence and the importance of staying present, as behavioral healthcare resources are more important now than ever.