There is a vital part of healing that survivors of adverse childhood experiences, who now live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, can learn to help themselves.
This piece of artillery is called resilience.
Resiliency can help us overcome the life-altering effects of adverse childhood experiences or repeated trauma in adulthood. It can also speed up healing and give us the strength to conquer our traumatic histories.
In this article, we shall explore together the definitions of complex trauma, resiliency, and how resiliency can help treat complex traumatic stress disorder.
A Review of the Effects Complex Trauma Have on Children and Adults
Many people think that complex trauma happens only to children. However, they would be wrong, as it can also happen to adults.
To understand this phenomenon, we must first examine the definition of complex trauma.
To put it simply, complex trauma is defined as exposure to repeated or prolonged events. These events include physical abuse, sexual abuse, living in a war zone, domestic violence, sex trafficking, torture, or any exposure to organized violence such as genocide.
Complex trauma is different from other types of trauma in that it involves feeling trapped and involves shame and humiliation.
The changes are strikingly evident in the person who has experienced complex trauma in their minds and bodies.
The guidelines for treating complex post-traumatic stress disorder offered by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies gives us a glimpse into the mental and physical damages caused by complex trauma.
Emotional Regulation Difficulties. Children cannot manage their emotions well when they experience complex trauma and will internalize or externalize their reactions.
Adults also do not have the ability to cope emotionally with complex traumatic events, such as domestic abuse or rape. Their reasoning power as adults is overwhelmed by what is happening to them.
This inability to cope with what is happening makes way for internalization and stuffing of anger and rage. As we know, these stuffed responses lead to depression. They can also present as anxiety or explosive and unpredictable anger.
Disturbances in relationships. Children who live through adverse childhood experiences will have problems in their relationships with friends, teachers, and anyone in authority such as the police. These problems are related to the difficulty traumatized kids have with attaching to their caregivers because of the abuse they are experiencing from them.
Adults also are affected by complex trauma in their relationships. Adults who have been victims of complex trauma may feel they can trust no one, or they may feel they must have someone in a relationship with them. They with either become clingy or abusive of their partners or form no lasting relationships at all.
The lack of attachment to someone else, due to complex trauma, leaves both children and adults less able to handle stress. It also leaves them in either physical or emotional isolation that can lead to suicidal ideation and actions.
Altered Self-Perceptions. Children base the way they see who they are on what they are told, both verbally and non-verbally. If a child is told verbally they are stupid, they believe that to be true. If they are sexually abused by a caregiver, they believe they are worthless except for the sexual pleasure of others.
Adults are also vulnerable to having their self-perception changed by complex trauma. A woman or man who receives beatings from their partner and is told they are lazy will decide subconsciously that this must be true.
In both children and adults, such treatment alters their self-concepts. It changes them dramatically from who they truly are to what others have said they are leaving them despising themselves.
Physical Changes to the Body, Brain, and Genes. The brains of children develop using changes in the trillions of brains cells with which they are born. Their nervous system, including their frontal lobe, amygdalae, and hippocampi are highly susceptible to the stress of trauma and neglect.
Adults have developed brains, but they are still susceptible to trauma-related changes. Magnetic resonance imagery (MRI), of people who have experienced severe trauma, has shown dramatic changes to their amygdalae and hippocampi.
The changes to the brains of both children and adults are devastating. The hippocampus and amygdala are necessary to interpret and respond to danger plus storing away what happened in memory to avoid that danger later.
When damaged, people who experienced complex trauma are left living in a constant state of readiness and in a constant state of fear.
The bodies of children experiencing adverse childhood experiences are in danger of developing a Toxic Stress Response. This physical reaction can lead to frequent infections, asthma, and poor growth.
Adults do not escape the negative effects of complex trauma as their bodies. They can form such diseases as heart problems, stroke, cancer, COPD, diabetes, and experience an early death.
Dissociation. Dissociation is an instinctive coping mechanism left to humans from our distant past. Every human has the capability to dissociate. We experience it as spacing out, daydreaming and road hypnosis among others.
However, children are especially good at dissociating and during traumatic events will use it to escape mentally from what is happening to them. Their brains will help them escape by allowing them to mentally leave their bodies.
Adults are also prone to dissociating from traumatic events. There is a lot of testimonials taken from people who have been in horrendous car wrecks and have experienced rape. These reports state that victims of these events often experienced observing the trauma they were experiencing from above or beside their bodies.
Once children begin using dissociation to hide, it becomes a problem as they will form a dissociative disorder. Dissociation changes a child’s ability to experience and be present. Dissociation also compromises the continuity of their life experiences.
While adults cannot form dissociative identity disorder, they can form other types of dissociative disorders such as depersonalization and derealization.
Unfortunately, dissociative problems are not the only mental health issues involved with experiencing complex trauma. Major depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder are only a few of the long list of mental health issues that are related to complex trauma.
I think it is plain, that both children and adults who fall victim to complex trauma need help to overcome the negative effects it has on their lives. It is in this treatment that resiliency plays a role.
The Definition of and Myths Surrounding Resiliency
The American Psychological Association in their piece titled, The Road to Resilience offers the following definition.
“Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”
There have been some very successful people who have overcome adversity through resiliency. Here is a short list of folks you will recognize.
J.K. Rowling—Divorced and left alone with a child, plus living in poverty, Ms. Rowling’s book Harry Potter was rejected 12 times. Not only this, but her editor told her it would be impossible for her to get published. J.K. Rowling overcame depression and her circumstances to become the second richest woman in England, second only to the queen.
Steven Spielberg—Rejected by the USC film school three times. He went on to become one of the most iconic and successful movie producers in American history.
Oprah Winfrey—Oprah was born into poverty, was raped and sexually abused, gave birth in her teenage years to a baby that died during childbirth, and was fired from a television station because she wasn’t “pretty enough.” She is now a much beloved American icon and the richest woman in America.
In looking at these three people, one may assume they were born resilient. However, resiliency is not an inborn trait that all humans have from birth. In fact, research shows that resiliency must be learned.
In a paper written in 2017 by Frank J. Infurna and Suniya S. Luthar, they report that the past belief that resiliency forms in the face of confronting major life stressors are erroneous. They also stated that to believe that individuals can overcome complex trauma without interventions such as psychotherapy, is damaging and dangerous.
Mindfulness and Learning Resilience
In our last discussion, we examined mindfulness and the important role it plays in healing from adverse childhood experiences. We discovered that mindfulness works to enhance neuroplasticity. It also changes our body chemistry and how our brains make new neuropathways leading to new ways of thinking.
Mindfulness builds resilience because it helps us to remain in the moment and acknowledge our thoughts, feelings body sensations and where we are in a non-judgmental and nurturing fashion.
Through using mindfulness, we don’t ask whether our thoughts or feelings are right or wrong, we acknowledge them. This aids us in putting what happened to us in the past where it belongs and allowing us to imagine our future in a fresh new light.
Research conducted in India and published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2015, gave this insight into the mindfulness and how it builds resilience:
“Resilience can be seen as an important source of subjective well-being, and point out many ways, mindfulness can promote this state of mind. Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally). Pausing and observing the mind may (help us) resist getting drawn into wallowing in a setback.”
In laymen’s terms, resilience is enhanced because mindfulness aids people living with the effects of adverse childhood experiences to stop obsessing about it and that increases the likelihood of healing.
Other Methods to Use in Conjunction with Mindfulness Help Build Resilience
While mindfulness is vital, other ways to build resilience aid the process. We are going to examine some other methods you can incorporate into your life to help on your healing journey.
Make Strong Connections with Family or Friends. As you may already be aware, after surviving childhood trauma, it is very difficult to accept help and support from others. This problem comes from a lack of trust that anyone else other than ourselves can or will support and accept us just as you are.
However, Reaching out to family members, friends, faith-based groups, or other people, is crucial to building resiliency. The effects of joining forming strong relationships also include giving emotional support to others. This builds self-respect and bolsters self-esteem.
Accept Two Irrefutable Facts, Life isn’t Easy, and Life isn’t Fair. No one ever born on planet earth ever had an easy life or felt it was fair. All humans go through times of turmoil and unhappiness, and sometimes it seems that fate has dealt us a bad hand. However, understanding the two facts of life, that it isn’t easy or fair, can propel you forward and build resilience.
Accept that Change is a Part of Life. Nothing escapes the fact that everything changes. Even the universe, with its multitude of stars changes and, will someday sputter and die. Death, birth, aging, and employment are only a few of the things that will change our lives. Learning to accept that change is an inevitable part of life helps us build resilience through acceptance. Acceptance releases us to live the best we can with the time we have in our life on this planet.
Take Good Care of Yourself. There are several ways to take care of yourself. For one, pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Try to find time every day to relax and enjoy what makes you feel happy. It’s also important to exercise regularly and pay attention to any physical needs you may have by going to the doctor for regular checkups.
Other ways of taking good care of yourself involve your view of who you are.
Nurture a positive view of yourself by acknowledging not only what is gone wrong in your life, but also what’s gone right.
Do this by spending time standing in front of a mirror and, without judgment, look at your reflection. At first, you might find this exercise very uncomfortable if you have a negative body image. However, after a while, you will note that you are NOT a hideous monster but a lovely if flawed human being, no more and no less.
Maintaining a positive outlook on life also helps to build resilience. Keeping problems in perspective allows you time to find what solutions are available and not experience events as crises. This helps to build resilience through practicing on small scale events. Then when a major life-changing event occurs, you are ready to maintain your thinking processes and with bounce back faster.
Look for Opportunities for Self-Discovery. If you are like many of us who have survived adverse childhood experiences, you may sit and scratch your head when asked what talents and abilities you possess. One way to discover more information about yourself is to sit down with paper and pen and write down your skills and interests.
Be totally honest when doing this. Don’t write things that you absolutely cannot do, like hiking when you live in a wheelchair (that was a joke, I live in a wheelchair myself), but also don’t ignore your skills either.
Then make some realistic goals for yourself. Do you like to read? Perhaps you can commit to reading a self-help book on your mental health diagnosis. Do you love to learn? Perhaps you can commit to taking a class at a local college in line with your interests.
Self-discovery builds resilience in that it builds up damaged self-esteem and makes one aware of what we know and how we can contribute to the world.
Pulling It All Together
Most humans are not born with the innate ability to be resilient. Resiliency is something we must learn, and if we do not learn it in childhood, we must do so as adults.
Learning resiliency is a major tool for anyone with a history of childhood trauma and the diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
Through mindfulness, we can learn resiliency by staying in the moment while still acknowledging our trauma history. We learn to not deny the feelings associated with the traumatic events.
It is also through mindfulness that our brains form new connections via neuroplasticity. Through these new brain connections, the parts of the brain responsible for recognizing and responding to danger will quiet. This brings a new peace and promotes self-acceptance and self-love.
There are other important ways to use with mindfulness to build resilience, including creating friendships, connecting with supportive family members, and good self-care.
While we cannot forget our traumatic histories we can build a more resilient self today. This allows us to have a peaceful life full of hope for the future.