Have you ever gone through a traumatic experience? My guess is yes. There is absolutely no shortage of trauma in this world (unfortunately). What was that trauma? How did you feel about it? Did you end up actually experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? If so, you are not alone. Some people seem to handle trauma better than others, but most everyone is negatively impacted by it, at least at first. But, how long might it take you to recover from that trauma? A month? Two months? Six months? A year? Potentially some traumatic experiences never truly leave you. Since some people handle trauma better than others, it could be really helpful for all of us to understand why, in the hopes that we can handle these inevitable traumatic experiences we may face.
Below, I will list out a few factors that have been tied to resilience, at least as it relates to the 9/11 Twin Towers attack in 2001. Even though these factors ended up being related to resilience, I hope the thing you take away from this blog post isn’t that some people are “better” than anyone else (or you). I’ll continue explaining this idea soon, but let me share some results from a study done a bit over a decade ago that people still are talking about. George Bonanno and his colleagues studied over 2000 individuals that were impacted by 9/11 in the areas surrounding New York City 6 months after the attack occurred. In this study, they related various components of individuals to resilience. In this case, resilience just meant that you were not experiencing symptoms of PTSD (which would be a very, very normal and acceptable response to something as traumatic as 9/11).
In this study, these are the people that ended up looking more resilient (compared to those in the parentheses):
1. Males (vs Females)
2. 65+ (vs 18-24 and also more resilient than all other age groups)
3. Asian (vs White and also more resilient than all other ethnic groups)
4. High school OR graduate school education (vs college education)
5. No current depression (vs currently depressed)
6. No current marijuana use (vs current marijuana use)
7. High social support (vs low and moderate social support)
8. No recent life stress (vs a couple or more life stressors)
9. No previous trauma (vs 2 or more previous trauma)
10. Not directly affected by 9/11 (vs directly affected by 9/11)
11. No trauma since 9/11 (vs trauma since 9/11)
(There is more too this of course, so please check out our write-up of this research study for more info on the actual results.)
Some of these findings may sound like garbage and I understand that and that is why I stated my thought before that no one here is “better” than anyone else. But, in seeing these results, it helps me think about what I could do after a traumatic event. It helps me think about why some events might be harder than others. It also helps me not be so hard on myself if I am not as “resilient” as I may want to be. And it can also help remind myself about my own strengths going into a stressful situation. Let me explain more below.
What can I do after a traumatic event?
Well, it depends on what I want out of the situation. Here are 2 separate potentials.
1. I want to look resilient. If I want to look as if I am resilient, then I just have to present myself that way. I firmly believe (though there is no scientific research on this exact situation) that some of the findings from the Bonanno study were merely because of differences in how different groups of people are socialized to express themselves. In particular, males and Asians may be taught to not outwardly show their emotions. I am both a male and an Asian and this absolutely rings true. In fact, many people have said I must be strong or resilient because of this! Of course, the effects in the study may or may not be because of this and it likely isn’t the case that this study found males and Asians more resilient than females and Whites ONLY because of this. But it is a potential and one to seriously consider. There are plenty of other qualities that could legitimately lead to these results as well. On average, males have more agency over their own lives compared to females (not because it SHOULD be that way, but because this is a societal construct—and one that we are trying to undo). With more agency, you can have more control, and feel more resilient. You can take up space. And you are allowed to have your space. If females were allowed the same space, they likely would be just as resilient as males, if not more. For Asians, it may be the case that they tend to have more interconnected social support networks that help get through traumatic experiences such as this. They, as a family, may be able to come together and rely on each other because of the importance on family in this culture, on average. The point is, people can think of you as resilient because of they way you choose to express yourself. Of course, this leads to many not good traits in society (e.g., idealizing people or worse, people not feeling free to show non-resilience/weakness/vulnerability).
2. I want actual help.
This study also very much supports the idea that seeking out help is a really good thing for resilience. Those with higher social support also ended up being more resilient than those with lower social support. This totally makes sense. But it is one thing for it to “make sense” and it is another to actually implement this into your life. What I mean is, someone [aka me] could know logically that social support is good, but still not actually seek it or build networks that allow for high social support. Reading this study, however, really reaffirms that it is needed especially in such dire times.
These results help me understand why sometimes it’s harder to be resilient and to not be so hard on myself.
Those with more stress and more chronic illnesses did worse than those without stress and without chronic illnesses. Again, this is very much a, “duh, of course” sort of finding. BUT! It is worthy really trying to internalize this idea. I think we often forget the real circumstances surrounding our or others’ lives. It could be the small stressors that add up over time and not just major stress that you may be
facing. It could be that you had to skip breakfast and lunch that day, that you didn’t get enough sleep, that you have been regularly working overtime and then all of a sudden, this major traumatic event happens. And you are blindsided. And it’s easy to forget that there was so much life (good or bad) that was happening before it. But both of those good and bad prior life events absolutely will affect how you end up dealing with the current life event.
Be easy on yourself. If you aren’t able to be resilient in the face of trauma, remember that this trauma didn’t just happen alone and that perhaps there were other stressful events happening as well. It isn’t your fault that everything decided to happen all at once. Life happens. And life will continue to happen. Both the positives and negatives will have periods of intensity and of waning.
These findings help me remind myself of my own strengths going into stressful situations.
One super important consideration for these results is that the authors are comparing groups. The way this works in psychological statistics is that there is a comparison group and we are trying to see if other groups differ or not from that comparison group. This does NOT tell us if certain groups are or are not resilient. It only tells us that some groups are at a similar level of resilience, some are less, and some are more. However, it is completely possible that in all of these groups, there was resilience, just maybe not as much when comparing to another group.
Also, at the end of the day, within ALL of these groups, there are likely people that were less resilient in the groups that were “most resilient” and then there are likely people that were more resilient in the groups that were “less resilient.” Let me say that again, but less confusingly. As an example, those with high school education had more resilience than those with college education, on average. However, let’s say there are 100 people with high school education and 100 with college education in this sample. All 100 high school educated people WERE NOT more resilient than all 100 with a college education. Some college educated people were definitely more resilient than some of the high school educated people. And this applies to all of the comparisons. Some females were more resilient than males. Some people with chronic illness were more resilient than some people with no chronic illness.
So regardless of if these categories that describe me are in the more resilient or less resilient group, it kind of doesn’t matter. Ultimately, it is up to me to remember my own strengths and not just be labeled as resilient or not. It is up to me to remember that each of these groups have within them the potential to be if not actually be resilient.
And, that is that. That is what I think about when I read this article. I mean, there are more thoughts of course and as you’ll continue to learn as you read my writings, but I’ll stop here for now.
Until next time.