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Understand - Coping & Resilience

Every person experiences the aftermath of trauma in their own way. Resilience is the capacity of humans to withstand traumatic and stressful experiences.

Normal Reactions To Abnormal Events

The emotions you are experiencing are normal considering the circumstances you are in.

Just as there are many different causes of grief, there are also many different reactions. Following exposure to a traumatic experience, most people experience stress reactions. Everyone experiences this in their own way, with a wide range of physical and emotional responses. The important thing to remember is that these responses are normal reactions to abnormal events.

Symptoms in response to trauma can last anywhere from a few days to months to years, but there is no “normal” timetable for grief. Because it is a painful process, the normal response may be wanting to make it go away immediately, which is near impossible. Some symptoms may appear immediately, while other symptoms may not appear for years later. Each of these symptoms ultimately are to help with adaptation to the crisis. Healing is a gradual process, full of ups and downs, so it is important to be patient with yourself. Some days you may not have the energy to actively try and help the grief, which is okay. You must allow the grief to unfold naturally and overtime you will heal.

Coping Ugly

There is no "right or wrong" way to grieve, but there are healthy ways.

People are inherently built to respond to the worst life has to offer with varied behaviors. There is a common misconception about grief that there is a specific order or way in which you will experience emotions following a trauma or loss. This is not true.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a swiss psychiatrist outlined the stages of grief in a book in the 1960’s. She claimed that after experiencing a trauma or loss, people experience these five stages of grief in a specific order. While it is true that often times people do experience these emotions, most do not experience it them in a certain order, or maybe not at all. This has led to confusion amongst many people in a time when you may already feel insecure.

Kulber-Ross Five Stages of Grief
  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Since then, we have begun to rethink grief. Another psychologist, George Bonanno, has coined the term “coping ugly” which describes the varieties of coping strategies people employ after a trauma. Some people may cry uncontrollably, while others may not cry at all. Some may smile and laugh their way through it, while others repress those emotions. Whatever your coping style is, it is important to recognize that there is no “right” way. It may be easy to judge your reactions based on those of others, but remember that the trauma you experienced is your own. Just as there is no typical loss or trauma, there is no typical response. You are simply doing what needs to be done in order to get through it, and that can take the form of many different emotions.

Not only this, but there may be highs and lows in the coping process. It is not something that one day you will feel better and then never feel the pain again. There will be both good days and bad, some days you will feel better, and then the next day you may want to cry all day. Grief is a roller coaster of emotions. You need not feel shame in having good days, smiling or laughing. This does not mean that you should fake or ignore the other emotions as well, but its typical for the sadness to be intermixed with happiness. Even years after a trauma or loss, there may still be periods of intense grief. Healing does not mean you will forget about the traumatic event, but it does mean that you will be able to move forward.

Although there is not necessarily a right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to do it. These may vary from person to person, and sometimes it is okay to do nothing as well. Grief is painful and the tendency can be to make it want to go away immediately. As a result of this, some people turn to drugs or alcohol. It is important to avoid alcohol or other self-destructive behaviors and drugs during this time.

Emotional and Physical Reactions

There are countless emotions you may experience, as well as physical symptoms as well.

Grief affects everyone differently, but there are some common physical and emotional reactions you may feel while navigating through the coping process. Remember that these things are all normal responses.

Common Emotional Responses
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Confused
  • Fear/Anxiety
  • Detached/Numb
  • Shock
  • Tired
  • Irritable
  • Irritable
  • Lonely
  • Guilt/Shame
  • Denial
Common Physical Responses
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Getting sick often
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia

When To Seek Help

Sadness and other emotions should not remain central to your life and functioning.

Although there is no normal timetable for the grieving process, the symptoms should start to lessen after a few months. Grieving is an inherently painful process that takes time. Generally speaking, after six to eight months, you should begin to feel better and have resumed normal day-to-day activities. This is not to say that there will still be hard days, but for the most part, the pain will have lessened. If you feel, however, that the symptoms you experienced in the first few months following a trauma are not getting better, or are getting worse, you may want to seek help from a professional trauma or grief expert, counselor, therapist or social worker.

While the sadness or other emotions may never disappear completely, they should not remain central to your life and functioning. You should give yourself time to experience the emotions as they come, but if they are so consuming that you are not able to resume life after a few months, it may be a more serious form of complicated grief.

When To Seek Help
  • If emotional and/or physical symptoms are not lessening after a few months past traumatic experience.
  • If the symptoms are getting progressively worse.
  • If sadness or other emotions remain central to your daily life and functioning.

Depending on the intensity of the trauma, working through it can be very painful and scary. For some, it is too much to handle on your own, which is perfectly normal. It is not something to be ashamed of, but rather be proud of the fact that you are capable of accepting help. Recognizing this is the key and finding the right specialist to help you can make all the difference. It is important to find a therapist that makes you feel safe, respected and comfortable.

What is Resilience?

Resilience helps us overcome stressful situations.

People experience stress each day. Whether it is finishing a project on time or losing a loved one, most people are able to keep stabilized. Fortunately, people are able to adapt to situations such as these. Resilience is the capacity of humans to withstand traumatic and stressful experiences. Resilient people draw on strength in themselves and their relationships to overcome adverse situations.

For centuries, it has been noted that humans have capabilities to overcome the most devastating of events and tragedies. However, resilience and positive outcomes after trauma have only recently become a popular subject. Research on grief and trauma has dominantly been centered around PTSD, in regards to outcomes after a traumatic situation. Because of this, resilience has been dubbed a rare trait that not many people possess. What people don’t know is that resilience is a fairly common reaction to traumatic events and grief.

This is not to say that being resilient means you will not experience stress, trauma, or grief, but rather that it is something our bodies and brains help us to overcome. Resilience is not only a partially innate quality, but something that you can build as you gain better self-management skills and knowledge. It is something that is developed more fully as you go through life and experience a wide range of events. Resilience also grows by having supportive relationships with family, friends, and peers, as well as cultural beliefs that help you cope.

Your Brain On Resilience

Scientists have found chemicals that counteract the
stress hormone, cortisol.

In recent years, scientists have discovered a number of biological signals that indicate resilience. They have found that stress hormones seem to switch off more readily in resilient people. This is due to chemicals that can actually help turn off and lessen the effects of cortisol on various parts of your brain.

response imageNeuropeptide Y and DHEA counteract stress hormones.

Two in particular, DHEA and neuropeptide Y, help to reduce anxiety by counteracting the sometimes damaging effects of cortisol, which in turn helps your body recover quicker. Neuropeptide Y counteracts the effects of CRH in various regions of the brain, whereas DHEA acts directly on cortisol to slow the release and effects. Both of these chemicals lessen the stress response and help to keep things in check.

Misconceptions About Resilience

Resilience is something you either have or you don’t.

Resilience is a compilation of your thoughts, behaviors, and actions. Although many people develop these skills throughout their lives, it is not something that you either have or you don’t. You can work on being more resilient by gaining sets of skills to help get you through tough times.

Resilience is an unhealthy adjustment to grief.

A common misconception about resilience in the past has been that it is an unhealthy adjustment to grief, leading to delayed grief reactions, which is simply untrue. Resilience does not mean that you are pushing emotions under the rug or ignoring feelings. It means that your body and mind are finding ways to help return you to normal after an abnormal circumstance. It keeps you stabilized through the grieving and eventually leads to gaining personal strength in the process. You are not ignoring the negative emotions that come after experiencing trauma, but rather allowing positive emotions to flow as well.

Resilient people don’t need help from others.

A big part of being resilient comes from the support of your friends, family and community. Resilient people not only rely on the strength of themselves, but also the strength of others to help guide them through tough times. Sometimes this can be hard to do, as many people in todays culture view independence as strength, which is only true to a point. Having a good support system to help you after experiencing a trauma is the best tool to regain a well-adjusted and healthy life. A therapist or counselor may also be needed to help process and understand what occured and together you can learn and build resilience.

Being resilient means you do not experience stress and sadness.

Resilience does not protect you from stress and the typical range of emotions during the coping process. Resilient people still have hard days, with just as much intensity as others. However, resilience means you are also able to experience positive emotions intertwined with the negative. It is a process of gaining strength and healing, even in the face of trauma.

Trauma makes people stronger.

While it is true that many people experience positive changes and growth after a trauma, it is not the actual event itself that does this. Going through something traumatic does not cause you to be stronger, but rather the process of persevering and growing in the face of adversity. After experiencing trauma, your body and mind are called upon to do the most difficult thing-heal. They are challenged. This process gives us confidence in ourselves at our ability to overcome difficult situations, as well as teaches us many traits and skills that can be helpful in daily life many years after the trauma.

Growth From Grief

Growth after trauma is common.

In recent years, psychologists have been coined the term “posttraumatic growth”. This refers to positive changes one experiences after going through traumatic experiences or major life crises. Because disorders such as PTSD are so well-known in our culture, it may sometimes be hard to see how any positivity could come of a traumatic situation when you are in it. The fact of the matter is that of all the people who experience traumatic grief, only a small percentage of these go on to develop PTSD.

This is not to say that after a trauma you will not experience the normal, negative reactions to trauma. The normal human reaction to extreme adversity is crying, mourning, feeling down, etc., however, more commonly than not, the long-term outcome of people is resilience and growth. In recent studies, psychologists have recorded positive change in five areas of people who dealt with trauma.

People have experienced growth in five areas:

  1. Renewed appreciation for life
  2. Found new possibilities for themselves
  3. More personal strength
  4. Improved relationships
  5. Spiritually more satisfied

Growth after trauma is common, but it does not mean that the healing process is any easier. It is still grief, and it still requires an immense amount of suffering and strength to get through it, but it does present hope that there are positive outcomes to the most awful situations. In many cases, suffering and growth can coexist.