A Deep Dive into Social Resilience: Learning Skills to Cope with Trauma
Resilience is a word that most of us are familiar with. Whether used in referencing a recent widower, or a news anchor reporting on reparations after a natural disaster, resilience has crept into the pop psychology world across various forms of media. We use the term resilience generally to describe someone’s ability to bounce back in the face of uncharted hardship. In learning how to cope with challenges, science has revealed that the human brain has great capacity to adapt and fortify strategies to come out stronger. This is called “neuroplasticity” in the field of psychological science.
Survivors of interpersonal trauma are typically building resilience over long periods of time as they re-learn how to trust and bond with others. In many cases, the same trauma or type of trauma is experienced by a group or sect of people. In these circumstances, healing may be part and parcel of socializing with other group members to process and heal from their experiences.
Psychologist Dr. Laurie Leitch and psychiatrist Dr. Loree Sutton spent many hours of research investigating this observed process of group healing. The spouses became interested in what they call “social resilience” after many years serving in the military bearing witness to soldiers developing post-traumatic stress from going through the very same life-altering events. This model has since been used by a variety of welfare and mental health nonprofits as well as neuroplasticity researchers to conceptualize how to maximize the capabilities of social resilience.
Social resilience research is informed by the evidence that stress and trauma in large doses have the ability to impair the brain’s ability to manage daily life functions. Though challenge in small doses is healthy and helps the brain grow, the chronic or intense release of cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) inhibits maturation and can make adults exhibit coping styles similar to that of young children. So how do we turn trauma into resilience instead of helplessness?
According to Leitch and Sutton, social resilience includes several key elements:
1.Learning to pay attention to sensations in the body
This step draws from the ancient eastern traditions of meditation and mindfulness which have made their way into the western psychology world. Trauma often tells our brains to repress the trauma that happened to us. While seemingly adaptive, this actually has the potential for sudden flooding of trauma experiences which can render us helpless to panic. Practicing safely becoming in touch with our body helps us better control our reactions and teach ourselves that we are safe
2. Learning to intensify sensations that bring calmness, joy, gratitude
If you like something, do more of it! Social resilience requires repeat healing activities that will wire our brain to automatically feel calm in lieu of dysregulated. Building mental health capacities function the same way as learning to play a sport, or learn a song on the piano. More practice makes our brains more comfortable and expectant of positive sensations.
3) Learning to notice “negative” sensations and to titrate them by consciously directing attention
In a similar process to #2, resilience is about noticing when we are starting to become triggered and catching it before it snowballs. This skill can be developed by tracking and identifying our triggers. Pushing past discomfort to recognize the potential for a threat helps us prepare to consciously work through it when it appears. We can then use learned strategies to redirect our focus to a more helpful mental activity
4) Learning to shift away from negativity/activation to a place in the body that is neutral or positive and maintain that attention until activation decreases and balance returns.
This final principle brings the foremost points to a head in calling for an integration of mindfulness and regulation skills. When we are at our most integrated selves, we can harness our resilience to return ourselves to equanimity.
Leitch and Sutton call for these elements to be implemented in crisis intervention programs following political, natural, or social disaster. Bringing groups of survivors together to engage in healing further conveys that the trauma does not have to be experienced alone, and rather that it can borrow from the strength of its counterparts. Using the above skills of mindfulness and reprocessing, the brain will functionally “depathologize” the trauma and help it learn that the trauma is in the past. Most important of social resilience is that while we can recognize that trauma has happened to us, we do not need to let it control the remainder of our lives.
htE’s workshops incorporate principles of social resilience to bring survivors together in processing and overcoming their trauma. Expressing intangible feelings through art surrounded by a community of peers guides us through the four steps towards a greater capacity to attain a life of stability and fulfillment.
To learn more about the social resilience model, visit https://www.thresholdglobalworks.com/about/social-resilience/