Misunderstanding Trauma—and Resilience

You may have noticed trauma everywhere you look these days. It is from the friend who was “traumatized by her haircut” to the talk-show guest that wants to tell her story about her past. Victims can “speak” their trauma in court.

According to conventional wisdom, trauma sufferers will always be emotionally handicapped. This has made us extremely unforgiving. If the victim can’t have a happy day, then why shouldn’t they?

It is now so widespread that the idea of trauma changing everything has become a common belief that is is considered gospel. Recent New Yorker article by Parul Sehgal traces how trauma became the all-purpose backstory for a huge swath of today’s TV shows, movies, and books. You can look into the lives of everyone from Claire Underwood and Ted Lasso. It is clear that these characters were hurt deeply by someone or something. This somehow helps explain everything, from their complete ruthlessness (hers), to their uncontrollable cheer (his). The idea that these characters were traumatized is easily accepted by viewers.

Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and co-author of 2005’s One Nation under TherapyThat view is summarized by Satel: “You have done something to my mind, and I now live in pain from the past and will never be able to lead a normal, happy life.” Satel admits that it does happen, but not in the way most people think.

Samantha Boardman (a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medicine who is the author of this book) says that most people who have suffered trauma are psychologically healthy. Everyday Vitality (Penguin Life). Boardman points out Londoners in the Blitz. The authorities were concerned about the possibility of the people going insane from fear and grief back in those days, so they established three mental hospitals. However, the basket cases did not materialize. The British’s upper lip was so rigid that it had to be turned over to the Army to treat wounded soldiers.

Then came 9/11. Another traumatic event. Six months later, surveys of New Yorkers found that we were almost back at our previous stress levels. Simon Wessely from the University of New York observed that we had lost sight “People are much more resilient and resourceful” in his 2006 lecture.

Wessely stated that professional intervention (a.k.a. “psychological debriefing”) seems to be the only thing that can halt the normal healing process. “psychological debriefing.” It was noted by the author that over fifteen trials had been conducted in which random allocations were made for people who would like to be debriefed or not. This is a flawed method that we now know does not work. Worse, “the three best studies, with the longest follow-up, have shown that those who randomly received the debriefing were more likely to develop PTSD”—post-traumatic stress disorder.

Our culture seems to be creating PTSD inadvertently by expecting it. This assumption is based on our belief that no person can ever recover from traumas psychologically. We are actually causing people to become disabled by our kindness and compassion. We must stop treating the injured as if they were damaged goods.

One reason we should not underestimate the trauma impact is because it gives us the opportunity to cause vengeance. Roger Lancaster from George Mason University, an anthropologist, says that future historians will marvel at how trauma was tied to myth-makings, social control, and other factors. Sex Panic, Punitive State, and the Punitive State.

Every crime is made more terrible when trauma is considered the most important part of one’s life. Due to the increasing use of victim impact statements the courtroom has become a counseling room. It aims to heal the victim and help them feel heard rather than just ascertain whether they were guilty. Lancaster states that the victim’s unending trauma “basically” becomes the basis for longer sentences.

More power is given to trauma than to the state. We underestimate the resilience of human beings, which is threatening our culture and making it difficult for victims as well as wrongdoers in order to make positive changes.