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Resiliency After Trauma:The Neurobiology of Post-Traumatic Growth

By Ruby Jo Walker. Published in the Healthy Living - Mental Health Magazine in the Durango Herald 10/2017

Growth from trauma is possible as people discover their own resiliency after traumatic events. To understand how healthy post-traumatic growth happens, the relationship between trauma and its biological underpinnings must be explained. Using the nervous system as a lens, trauma is seen as a response in physiology rather than just a psychological phenomenon as it was in the past. This is important as it shifts the way we view trauma from being a way people cope —like how strong or weak they are— to instead being a disruption of their physiology. True resiliency comes from us actually feeling better in our bodies, having a reduction of trauma symptoms, as well as making constructive meaning from traumatic events.

The primary function of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is survival. The ANS responds to “perceived” threat with certain responses based on its assessment of that threat. Note that “perceived” is the critical word here as it is on the body level that this perception occurs; this is called neuroception. It is not connected to our cognitive assessment but instead is the body’s immediate assessment of threat, which may or may not match the reality of the situation.

Peter Levine was one of the first people to make the connection between animals in the wild and their biological responses to trauma. He found that animals in the wild complete their biological responses and do not end up with persistent trauma symptoms like humans. Our threats now are not really saber tooth tigers, but more things that happen in relationships or in other modern situations—but the body still responds to these as threats. Additionally, our nervous system has an evolutionarily inherited negativity bias towards the assessment of threat, meaning it sees threat more often than is really there as a way to stay safe. We are so survival-oriented, that our brain can easily mistake a stick as a snake. Whether “real” or not, when the nervous system perceives a threat we will try to get out of the situation using fight, flight or freeze. If we are unable to fight or flee, these responses have the potential to get “stuck” in the body.

If one’s neurobiology is stuck in fight/flight response, there is more possibility for anxiety or anger issues and achieving real rest can be difficult. If one is stuck in the freeze response, depressive disorders are more likely to arise as well as issues with procrastination, low energy, accessing feeling, or responding fully to life. These nervous system states of incomplete trauma or “stuckness” limit the range of behavior that one can express.

Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, of the Boston Trauma Center, says "Trauma is a disorder of being in the here-and-now.” This means that trauma can prevent individuals from experiencing the “here and now” —as they are perpetually locked into an old reaction, or dysregulation—that is NOT connected to the present moment. When we are dysregulated, only certain aspects of our nervous system are available—which will limit our range of responses. When we are regulated, we can respond in the moment to exactly what is happening—and we are actually responsive. In life, we need to connect with others, set boundaries, and get out of situations that are not good for us. It is our working nervous system that helps us have these natural and appropriate actions. In essence, the state of our nervous system will determine our range of behavior. In a nervous system that is working well, we have the most access to this wider range of behaviors.

The beauty is that post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a possibility. PTG is about expanding beyond the trauma that has occurred—and expanding into more of who we are. Post-traumatic growth can leave an individual more free to focus on the meanings of life, and to being more present. PTG is more than a reduction of symptoms. Instead, PTG is about having a new positive perspective on life.

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