Why do some heal from trauma and others do not?

A lot of times we look at people and are in awe of their resilience. They have gone through something terrible, and they seem to be doing okay. We can’t help but wonder, how did they make it through?  If we have experienced something traumatic ourselves and are struggling, we can often fall into the comparison trap. We wonder - why can’t I bounce back from trauma? How do I heal from trauma? Why does my past affect me so much? What is the key to recovering from trauma and not getting stuck in it?

When we seek treatment for trauma there are a lot of options to explore. There is Cognitive Processing Therapy or CPT for PTSD. There is brain spotting and EMDR.  I have a blog on treatment for trauma here that goes into more detail of how I treat trauma with talk therapy.  There is more information here about how trauma is carried on through the generations and what to do to stop the cycle of trauma.  

To understand the best way to treat trauma we first need to understand what gets us stuck in trauma and develop symptoms of PTSD. Once we understand what causes PTSD we can understand how trauma heals.

I am going to use an example from history to illustrate my point. This example sticks with me because I see it repeated in my clients again and again. I am not a history buff, but I think I am hitting the main points to illustrate why some suffer from PTSD or trauma while others seem to be more resilient.

The Rate of Trauma Symptoms in WW II and Vietnam Veterans

I remember this example from a class I took in graduate school that resonated with me so much that I use it frequently to illustrate the treatment of trauma with my clients.  

Imagine the World War II era United States. In summary, we were not involved much in the war until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. At that point, it seemed as if there was no choice but to enter the war and join in the fight. There was so much global devastation. In the United States there were a lot of campaigns behind supporting the war effort. There were Victory Gardens and Rosie the Riveter – We Can Do It posters. The US was very supportive of the troops and when our military came home from the war they were welcomed with parades. Americans were proud of our men and women that fought for our country.

Now, imagine Vietnam War era United States. There was so much conflict over our involvement in the war. It didn’t seem as clear who “the enemy” was and there also didn’t seem to be a clear resolution. There were protests of “make love not war”. When our military came home from Vietnam, they were not celebrated or honored, at least not to the extent of the WW II military.

There have been studies demonstrating the rate and intensity of the trauma symptoms and PTSD in war veterans. The studies concluded that the military members who were involved in the Vietnam War experienced a higher frequency and more intense symptoms of PTSD than the veterans of WW II.

There are several factors that have an influence on this statistic. It is fair to say that there is increased awareness and research between the 1940s and the 1970s. So, it’s not that there is more PTSD there is just more awareness of PTSD. There is also the idea of stigma surrounding mental health and as time goes on it is more and more common that we hear about mental health struggles. However, even when taking all these factors into consideration, there is still more intense experience of symptoms. Why?

When we think about the culture of the United States during WWI and Vietnam the big difference is that the military members experience was validated. They were celebrated when they returned home. There was a clear reason for entering WW II, there was a clear enemy in WW II, and there was a clear ending to WW II. Vietnam was much vaguer. There was also not a warm welcome when veterans returned home, they were almost shamed for the experience they had. The trauma and violence experienced during the Vietnam war was not supported, honored, or validated.

Ready to talk? Please set up a time to meet if you are considering exploring your experience further. 

Why is validation important in healing from trauma?

People who have traumatic experiences get stuck and do not heal from their trauma when their experience is minimized. The fear, guilt, and shame that comes with the experience is amplified by the environment they live in. When the beliefs that you have in your head about what happened to you are echoed by the people you care about or the public at large, there is no way that we can reconcile what happened to you and feel safe again.

How do I offer validation to a loved one who has experienced trauma?

A lot of times when people are stuck in trauma, it is because they told someone about the event, and nothing happened, or they were too afraid or ashamed to disclose what happened. In both situations, the experience was minimized or hidden. There was no acknowledgment of how horrific the event was or how scary. Instead, the person who experienced the event is left to draw their own conclusions about themselves and the world around them based on a skewed view developed by a brain that was in fight or flight mode.

If someone we love has experienced a traumatic event the most important thing to do is to acknowledge that it happened, without blame or judgment. We don’t tell them they should have known better; we don’t say you had it coming or that’s what you get. We don’t say, we must keep this a secret to protect the family.  Instead, we say, “I am sorry that happened” or “that was terrifying”. We encourage them and support them to get the help they need so they can get their power back.

How can I find validation for myself?

Often, we are stuck in trauma or past events because we never got the validation or acknowledgement from others, especially those who are close to us. Unfortunately, we may never get it. But what we can get is validation and connection from ourselves and from others. Sharing your experience with those who have earned the right to hear it is huge. If you don’t have anyone in your circle to share with, reach out to a therapist or a support group. A therapist can help you navigate your experience and help you to get a better understanding of how you have changed in response to the event. Once we understand the intricacies of the experience, we can start to change the thoughts and feelings around what happened.  Shame gains power by staying in the dark. When we bring shame out into the light, it loses its power. If you would like support in navigating your experience, please reach out.