The Problem with Resilience When Dealing with Complex Trauma

Silhouette of a man's head. Mental health related. Universe as brains.

Let me begin this blog by saying I am a big fan of promoting hope. We all need and deserve to be hopeful about so much that is going on in our lives and in the lives of those who are important to us. Right now especially, and with what we all lived through in the past year, hope seems to be a good idea!

However, sometimes the emphasis on hope detracts from the seriousness of a situation or condition. It can sugarcoat something that is much more complicated and serious than is being presented. It can give rise to false optimism which ultimately leads to disappointment. It also can be very unfair albeit well-intended and people who have been told they should be hopeful begin to feel like failures because they cannot fulfill others’ hopeful expectations.

In a recent conversation with a friend, Dr. Sandy Bloom I shared my observation that there are more and more programs arising that talk about promoting resilience when it comes to trauma. I am sure many of these programs provide basic trauma information that can be helpful when the trauma they are describing falls under categories that are less severe and extreme.

Hand writing Trauma with blue marker on transparent wipe board.

With trauma, it is important to keep in mind that it falls on a long continuum that describes its severity and complexity. It can be illustrated by considering very minor traumas as a lowercase “t” to gradually increasing the size of that “T” and its boldness until it becomes extremely large and extremely bold. There are many increments along this continuum. The word “trauma” is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis.

Resilience is all about finding ways to “snap back,” much like what happens when you stretch a rubber band and then release it. For many, resilience is about being healed from trauma. Again, I am not against the idea of promoting resilience and encouraging people to have hope that healing is possible. We talk about resilience in our Lakeside trauma courses.

My problem, and Sandy agreed, is that too many people are convinced that a kind of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mindset that communicates the belief that a trauma-impacted person can and should be resilient and focus on bouncing back is simply not fair or accurate for those with severe, complex trauma.

When trauma is extremely complex, it is deeply embedded throughout the brain and is at the further end of that severity continuum. Promoting resilience can be an insensitive response to the pain that traumatized person experienced.

Man talking in therapy session with psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, therapist. specialist with a notepad, patient sitting on couch.

This has been one of the problems many of the trauma experts have with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), even when it is couched as Trauma-Informed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Certainly people can benefit from various forms of CBT when they are able to be cognitive, or operating in the upper area of their brain, the cortex.

Trauma, especially the very complex severe trauma like that from childhood, resides in the very deep recesses of one’s brain, where sensory memories lie. People with deep and profound traumatic imprints need extensive, long-term therapeutic interventions that allow them to gradually and very sensitively process shattered narratives. Furthermore, as with Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model of Therapy, they need to rebuild and rewire the brain from the bottom up. It’s a little like dealing with Humpty Dumpty when trying to put the pieces back together again. Should Humpty Dumpty have been more resilient?

ACEs word cloud

Like many people, I experienced severe, complex trauma and have over 4 ACEs along with other types of complex traumas. I have had decades of therapies, some helpful, others not so much.  Over time I have experienced a great deal of healing, but I know that I will never be fully healed.  Should I have been more resilient?  Should I focus on being more resilient? Maybe yes and maybe no. This premature focusing on resilience, thinking that there are somewhat simplistic ways to bounce back, be stronger and less susceptible to the symptoms of trauma can have very detrimental impact on people with complex trauma histories.

It is important to be hopeful and to seek ways to build resilience that can be protective and can promote healing with regard to trauma. It is equally as important to be realistic in a blending of compassion, empathy, patience and loving respect for just how deep someone’s trauma is. My hope is that programs that emphasize resilience can also emphasize that for some, it will be at best elusive and needs to be placed on its own continuum that honors where it fits in a person’s journey towards healing from their trauma.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. What first comes to mind when you think about the connections between trauma and resilience?
  2. Why might it be important to differentiate among the different degrees of trauma someone has experienced, and how deeply embedded and complex someon’s trauma is?
  3. How can you balance an appreciation for promoting resilience with an understanding of how important it is not to overemphasize this when interacting with someone with severe, complex unresolved trauma?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute