“She stood in the storm and when the wind did not blow her way, she adjusted her sails.” ~ Elizabeth Edwards
We have arrived at a most exciting time in the course of dealing with childhood and adult trauma. We are now armed with science and technology which can bring about real healing for thousands and thousands of people whose lives have been severely damaged by terrible things that have happened to them.
The challenges facing those who provide care for people who have experienced trauma involve helping them find comfort initially and then by guiding them back to wholeness. A flood of emotions and uncertainty follow the death of a loved one, abuse, terrorism, the ravages of war and other such events. We have found that this toxic stress alters the brain, damages the psyche and compromises the physical health of victims. Now there is an approach that can help restore their lives. It combines three programs which use brain and behavioral sciences. Those who receive this kind of treatment dramatically increase their capacity to adapt, navigate and bounce back from adverse and challenging life experiences.
Resilience; Using ACEs and Trauma Informed Care to Change Lives
Resilience has been called “the birth of a new movement among pediatricians, therapists, educators and communities, who are using cutting‐edge brain science.” We are determined to fight back against the effects of childhood trauma (Developmental Trauma Disorder) and adult PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and end the nightmare of toxic stress.
Two incredible breakthroughs in brain science dealing with trauma have emerged over the past two decades.
- ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Kaiser Permanente’s research which includes the impact of traumatic experiences in childhood on adult health and health behaviors
- Trauma Informed Care programs which incorporate knowledge of the impact of early trauma into policies and programs along with new strategies which help people cope and heal
Despite the many positive benefits that have come from both contributions one thing seemed to be underemphasized. That is the development of practical, resilience-oriented interventions.
- Resilience is neuroscience-based action with practical skills to build greater capacity for self-regulation and self-care in clients.
Resilience is the process of adapting well. We all know that some victims of difficult situations find a way to bounce back from significant sources of stress. They seem to experience trauma but continue their lives without lasting negative effects. Many, however, experience impaired neurodevelopmental and immune system responses as well as development of high risk behaviors resulting in chronic physical and behavioral disorders. Poor performance on tasks, dysfunctional social and emotional functioning, cognitive problems, and substance use disorders has been linked to trauma.
This is not to say that there are a lucky few who are immune to the consequences of difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common to everyone who suffers trauma or major adversity in their lives. The difference lies in resilience. And the road to resilience involves considerable energy and hard work.
The New Resiliency: A Focus on Healing Centered Engagement
Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.
Adults who suffer with PTSD and children with Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) respond quickly to Trauma Informed Care weaved with Resilience therapy interventions. This weaving of treatment models is called Healing Centered Engagement (HCE). It is an emerging field of positive psychology offering insight into the limits of treating symptoms. HCE focuses on enhancing the conditions that contribute to and strengthen the roots of well-being.
Trauma Informed Care moved us from the clinical question of “what is wrong with you” to “what happened to you” which shifted the focus from symptoms to action. Healing Centered Engagement as defined by Dr. Shawn Ginwright of San Francisco State University moves beyond “what happened to you” to “what’s right with you” and views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own well-being rather than victims of traumatic events.
Dr. Ginwright’s work with youth who suffer daily toxic stress in impoverished communities has been embraced by human service providers who work with both adults and children. It views trauma from a ‘community well-being/engagement’ model. These are some of the ways to build such healing centered programs.
Step One: Building Empathy
“When our wounds cease to be a source of shame and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.” ~ Henri Nouwen
One of the first things we learn as students of psychology or counseling is that we should avoid self-disclosure at all cost. I have long believed that this created a distance between the client (group or individual) and therapist which set up a barrier to empathy. The popularity of 12 Step Recovery Groups blew the efficacy of that model apart. We have found that when staff members self-disclose by telling their stories, a mutual vulnerability and power-sharing rather than power-over dynamic is established in which honesty can be risked safely. Individuals and groups begin to share feelings openly and a sense of well-being is established.
Step Two: Encourage the Dream and Foster Imagination
Healing begins when we admit that we have been harmed and injured. Ignoring or denying that bad things have happened force the mid-brain to hang on to survival behaviors. In this second element of HCE, participants come to believe that they will no longer be defined by that harm and injury.
Most folks who have suffered chronic trauma lose the ability to dream and imagine because they are overwhelmed by a focus on crisis and survival. Hopefulness and optimism are foreign concepts when the present moment is filled with toxic stress. Healing Centered Engagement treatment creates a variety of activities which enable the participants to play, to envision a different life, and to develop attainable goals toward realizing their dreams.
One way to start dreaming and imagining again is by conducting the popular Six-Word Memoir activity in a group setting. It is a powerful tool which inspires and encourages conversations through simple and non-risky personal storytelling. The process quickly gets to the bottom of how kids or adults are experiencing their lives. It also sets up the possibility of following dreams and building imagination which contribute to well-being.
Step Three: Grasping Reality and Taking Action
This step toward healing from PTSD or DTD deals with helping individuals to consider the situations, and even community practices, which have harmed them and others. Until those who suffer from toxic stress can externalize the reasons for their trauma they continue to blame themselves. When they begin to understand that poverty, substance use disorders, mental health issues and other factors have facilitated the pain they experience, a weight is lifted. At that point they can begin to mobilize personal strengths, community resources, spiritual practices and a variety of other elements in their culture to by taking ethical and loving action. This positive action of responding to the causes of trauma builds a sense of power and control over their lives. A good example of this is the March For Our Lives Organization which has empowered the victims of gun violence in schools. Such action is one of the most significant features in restoring well-being.
Our Trauma Won’t Define Us; Paul’s Journey to Well-Being
The Resilient stories of my clients have been life lessons for me. Several stand out as examples of how childhood trauma has been overcome by the power of empathy, imagining a new life and acting on it with compassion. Choosing one of them was easier than I thought. Paul’s inspirational transformation informs anyone who meets him that Trauma Informed Care along with Healing Centered Engagement foster remarkable recovery. He is an amazing fellow and a model of resilience.
Paul’s story is a very public one. He was one of the adolescent sexual abuse victims of a priest/coach during the 1970’s. News of the nightmarish behavior of the adult pederast hit newspapers and other media around 2003. Paul brought suit against the Roman Catholic Church and his perpetrator but was denied compensatory damages due to the statute of limitations. A book called “Denial: Abuse, Addiction, and a Life Derailed” was recently written by Nanette Kirsch and published in 2017 which details the tragic life of one of Paul’s teammates. It “confronts difficult truths with honesty and compassion in the life of the victim and his family with the goal of empowering others to break free of the past and embrace a life of wholeness and peace.” Paul collaborated in the writing.
To say that Paul had done about everything he could do to find wholeness after his teenage horrors is an understatement. He went over and above in search of healing and resilience. When we began meeting in individual sessions it became clear that he was financially successful, outgoing, athletic, and had a great sense of humor. He had confronted his abuser in court and tried hard to move on. But he disclosed to me that his exterior life was not a reflection of what was going on inside. He could not control his drinking, had extreme difficulty sleeping, and had some serious health problems exacerbated by PTSD. When I assured him that I understood, he looked at me with skeptical eye. Two other counselors had failed to guide him to well-being and this third attempt was just that…a third attempt at the same old issues. It was then that I disclosed by own struggles with substance abuse disorders and history of childhood sexual abuse. He opened up and committed to a new course of treatment.
The only thing that Paul lacked was the guidance of someone who could truly empathize with his situation. He had done most of the work already and was eager to be free. I can never forget the moment that he broke through the barrier which plagues so many victims of predators. He always felt that he was somehow to blame…that he could have stopped the abuse and saved others from his fate…if only he had just resisted and told responsible adults what was happening. We were role playing his abuse with him being an adult who rescues himself as a child when the lightbulb came on. He realized that NO child has power-over and adult who is abusing them. The child is NEVER responsible for what has happened.
In the years that have followed his successful Resilience treatment, Paul has continued to live a life that shines for all who seek recovery. He had a conversation with the former priest who abused him and offered forgiveness. He is active in a local church. His health has improved. Paul continues to collaborate with Nanette Kirsch and speaks to groups about the sexual abuse of boys. He unselfishly helps people who have a variety of needs due to disability, homelessness and who have financial hardship. In other words, he has, through resilience, turned Post Traumatic Stress into Post Traumatic Growth. As far as I’m concerned he is some kind of hero.
Individual Strategies for Building Resilience
People do not all react the same to traumatic and stressful life events. An approach to building resilience that works for one person might not work for another. These are some methods by which most of us can build resilience in overcoming the effects of trauma.
- Develop active coping skills: Learning to face fears. Problem-solving and managing emotions that accompany stress. This requires the help of professionals who understand positive psychology and resilience. A good Chaplain or counselor can guide clients to effective therapists. Get professional help if you feel like you are unable to function or perform basic activities of daily living as a result of a traumatic or other stressful life experience.
- Engage in physical exercise: Regular physical activity improves mood, mental and physical health. The effects of trauma are reduced and brain chemistry is altered.
- Take a positive outlook: Cognitive-behavioral strategies will enhance optimism and decrease pessimism. It is also good to develop and embrace a good sense of humor. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happened, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events.
- Overcome moral injury and redevelop a strong moral compass: Chaplains, clergy and mentors can help you learn to live by your own meaningful principles and then put them into action through service to others. Meditation and spiritual practices help some people build connections and restore hope.
- Seek social support: Develop nurturing friendships and seek resilient role models through your community and with support groups. Being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope. Assisting others in their time of need also can benefit the helper.
- Make connections. Good relationships with close family members and friends are important. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience.
- Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly that enables you to move toward your goals. Focus on achievable tasks regardless of how small they may seem. There is one thing you can do today to move in the right direction.
Conclusion; Creating a Revised Life Story
A professional in my field recently remarked that ‘the story you tell about your life could be called a lie’. He said that each of us has a unique perspective about what has happened over the years and that it is seen through an imperfect and biased lens. I guess he has a point. We especially take the negative things someone may have said to us and spin them into stories we believe are true. And then we tell ourselves those stories over and over again. Once we’ve told ourselves our negative stories, exposed our faults repeatedly, and fully believe them to be true, we put ourselves in an almost impossible rut. We begin to live with who we think we are as opposed to who we really want to be.
There is something powerful about my colleagues’ assertions. When we engage in active Resilience, we find opportunities for self-discovery. People are able to learn something about themselves and find that they have grown as a result of their struggle. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported better relationships, a greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, an increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality, and a heightened appreciation for life. Developing Resilience and maintaining a hopeful and optimistic outlook enables good things to happen. Resilience will lead us to the writing of a revised life story.
Robert Kenneth Jones is an innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse. In a career spanning over four decades, his work helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers. His blog, An Elephant for Breakfast, testifies to the power of the human spirit to overcome the worst of life’s difficulties. We encourage you to visit and share this rich source of healing, inspiration , and meditation.
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Bob Jones’ blog An Elephant for Breakfast