There Is Hope for Survivors to Heal: Research Shows How Resilience-Inherent or Learned-Can Moderate the Impact of Trauma on Body, Mind and Spirit

By Frawley-Odea, Mary Gail | National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2016 | Go to article overview

There Is Hope for Survivors to Heal: Research Shows How Resilience-Inherent or Learned-Can Moderate the Impact of Trauma on Body, Mind and Spirit


Frawley-Odea, Mary Gail, National Catholic Reporter


Part 2 of 4

In the first article of this series (NCR, May 6-19) I discussed the commonality and damage of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including clergy sexual abuse. Here, I focus on the hope that most trauma survivors can heal because of inherent or learned resilience and/or through access to healing resources.

Resilience

Since the 1980s, when child abuse and domestic violence emerged from society's skeleton closet, researchers and clinicians have rightly prioritized the tremendous wounds caused by adverse childhood experiences. Recently, however, researchers also have concluded that while about two-thirds of trauma survivors will experience at least some negative outcomes after trauma, almost another third will emerge into adults who seem not to have been deeply affected by earlier traumas.

Even more exciting are indications that resilience can be learned or expanded to moderate the long-term impact of traumatic stress on the body, mind and spirit.

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as "the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat." Resilience researchers like Dennis Charney and Steven Southwick have investigated the genetic, biological, social and spiritual factors contributing to resilience. They and others have identified a number of factors that appear to endow an individual with resilience:

* Above average intelligence.

* An internal locus of control. A sense that the individual can determine his/her own fate, even when trauma occurs.

* An optimistic cognitive style. Resilient individuals tend to be able to find the silver lining in even the darkest, most thunderous clouds. They are able to imagine a time when life will be better.

* A close, safe relationship with at least one adult not involved in the trauma. This is an area in which abusive priests were often the most despicable and damaging. Children known by predator priests to be in difficult home situations, or kids who came to the priests for advice or comfort about other traumas, were often selected as victims. Instead of responding to an already hurting young person with kindness and mercy, abusing clergy too often became another trauma for the child or teen.

* A consistent faith and/or cultural traditions that provided hope and a steady belief system. Once again, we see the travesty of priests whose sexual violations robbed victims of a faith-based building block of resilience to life's challenges.

* A good sense of humor, even when life is tough.

It is important to note that all researchers point to sexual abuse while young as a particularly pernicious ACE that results in multiple times the risk of trauma-related challenges than other ACEs do. Early sexual trauma also is likely to correlate with the most serious symptomatology.

Further, resilience researcher Emmy Werner maintains that even the most resilient person has a breaking point. The trauma survivor's breaking point may be lower than for those not coping with past ACEs and the sexual abuse survivor's breaking point is likely to be lower still.

At the same time, the research and my 30 years of working clinically with sexual abuse survivors convince me that healing is possible even when wounds from sexual abuse are deep and suppurating. Part of trauma-focused psychotherapy, in fact, is increasing resilience, also known as strengthening ego functioning.

Trauma recovery

Psychotherapy with a well-trained trauma expert is often essential to healing from traumatic childhood experiences. There are a number of clinical approaches to trauma recovery, but the most comprehensive include the following factors:

Telling the narrative: It is important for a trauma survivor to tell their story to another who bears witness to it. Unlike the first time around, the survivor has control of the timing and pace of being "in" the ACE; the locus of control begins to be assumed by the patient. …

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