What Makes Some People More Resilient to Trauma Than Others?

Mid adult woman with hand on chin,looking away,close-upWhy do some people suffer after a traumatic event while others do not?

This is an important question in the world of trauma psychology, one that is being extensively researched. We know, both anecdotally and empirically, that, given exposure to a critical incident, some people will be negatively affected by it, while others will move on and be essentially fine. For example, several young people of similar age and background can be deployed on the ground in the same unit in Iraq or Afghanistan, be exposed to roughly similar experiences, and some will return stateside, move ahead with happy and fulfilling lives and be fine, while others will experience some level of disruption associated with their service.

Why is that?

The answer to this appears to be largely the same as the answer to so many other quandaries in the field of psychology: the unique combination of genetic constitution and set of life experiences for any given individual. It’s the old “nature vs. nurture” question, and, as is typically the case, the answer seems to be “yes, both influence outcome significantly.”

As with so many things, it seems clear that we inherit a genetic constitution that may leave us more or less at risk of developing lasting problems after trauma exposure. Recent studies indicate that, with similar levels of trauma exposure, individuals who have close family members who have struggled with trauma-related problems are more likely than those without such a connection to struggle after trauma. This link seems fairly strong.

However, one generally does not experience trauma-related problems without … trauma. Life experiences do not occur in a vacuum, and trauma-related concerns are certainly no exception. Sometimes when we talk about trauma, we talk about a “dose-response relationship,” which simply means that a person’s response to trauma is directly related to the amount of exposure he or she has. Because of the differing “doses,” a person who experiences a single-incident trauma of brief duration (a car accident, for example) is at less risk of lasting problems than a person who experiences chronic exposure to ongoing traumatizing events for a lengthy period of time (such as child abuse or neglect).

Life experiences do not occur in a vacuum, and trauma-related concerns are certainly no exception.

This is not to say that people who experience a single car accident do not develop significant problems; they can and, unfortunately, sometimes do. However, the likelihood of ongoing struggles increases as the amount and severity of exposure to trauma increases. So, a person’s history of trauma and learned coping skills combines with his or her genetic constitution to create that person’s level of risk and resilience.

Sometimes when we talk about trauma-related struggles, we talk about trying to find ways that we might “inoculate” people against developing serious negative outcomes after a traumatic event. Of course, there is no shot or medicine that will achieve this; what we mean when we say this is that we hope to create a set of life experiences that will reduce a person’s vulnerability to troubles by increasing his or her resilience level. Essentially, we want to start to establish—prior to trauma exposures—habits and ways of being and relating to the world that seem to be associated with better outcomes after trauma exposures. For example, habits of thought are important in structuring how we perceive the world. A tendency to blame extensively or to personalize others’ behaviors may reduce resilience, so, with an eye toward increasing resilience, we may try to shift habits of thought in a different direction.

Of course, unlike “inoculation” in the true sense of the world, none of these will provide any real immunity. At present, there is no such thing—bad things happen to good people unexpectedly, and sometimes, in spite of everything, that person will encounter struggles associated with that. But we know that some habits can and do increase the chances that, upon exposure, the individual will be able to incorporate the experience and continue living life without major disruption.

Our knowledge about this grows every day, and we continue to work toward a more complete understanding of how to assist survivors of trauma. Both before and after traumatic incidents, there are interventions that we have identified that we know can meaningfully reduce suffering; this being so, it seems worth the effort to continue pursuing them as best we can, in spite of the imperfect state of our knowledge.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sunda Friedman TeBockhorst, PhD, therapist in Boulder, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 11 comments
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  • Nikki

    Nikki

    May 21st, 2015 at 2:21 PM

    I have a feeling that for me it was all about the way that I was raised.
    I was a military brat and so we moved A lot and so I had to learn with leaving and with loss from a very early age.
    I will not say that most people would want to be raised in this environment but I feel like I was lucky in that I got to see parts of the world that some others only dream of and I met a lot of really great people along the way that I have stayed in touch with.
    Again, not what I would want for myself, but I don’t think that I would trade it because of how strong it has made me in the end.

  • Chad

    Chad

    May 21st, 2015 at 4:04 PM

    There has to be that perfect balance of nature versus nurture. I am not sure that one really outweighs the other

  • Shari

    Shari

    May 22nd, 2015 at 7:46 AM

    I was told that how helpless you felt in the situation has a lot to do with it. That made sense to me.

  • John

    John

    May 22nd, 2015 at 9:38 AM

    I was hoping that there would be some mention of resiliencey factors, like having access to both inner and outer resources. Having a sense a humor sure helps and should be included as an inner resource from which we can draw. External resources like supportive people in our lives also helps as well as access to mental health services. Many of these resources can be developed and are not necessarily based on the genetic crap shoot we all must accept.

  • dara

    dara

    May 22nd, 2015 at 10:33 AM

    It is important to look at the people who raised you.
    Most of the time it will be these people inn your life who will give you the strength to get through whatever life throws at you or who will teach you instead that things will break you and that you won’t bounce back.
    These are the people who give you that sense of resiliency.

  • Tate

    Tate

    May 22nd, 2015 at 1:55 PM

    Life experiences… I think that for many people this can make you very immune to the chaos that goes on around you. You learn how to shake it off a little better than those who grow up with a more gilded lifestyle.

  • molly

    molly

    May 23rd, 2015 at 12:49 PM

    you just never know how you will react in situations until you have put out there and have been forced to swim

  • Ruth B.

    Ruth B.

    May 25th, 2015 at 6:42 AM

    One of my closest friends in the entire world is a woman whom I will forever look up to and admire. She has withstood so much pain in her life and yet she always keeps going, is the first one there whenever you need help or love, and she is constantly telling you how things Will get better and look up for you if you are only willing to give it time. Going through the things that she has experienced in her life, I am not sure that I could have the strength that she does, but she carries on and I am so proud of her for that. She has never said that it has been easy, but for her, it was right, and that’s what matters.

  • Dawn

    Dawn

    May 30th, 2015 at 7:21 AM

    I totally agree- if you are given the resources to be strong before something like this happens to you then you will be a fighter and more resilient if something ever does happen.

  • @dtjonesboi

    @dtjonesboi

    August 12th, 2015 at 1:07 AM

    I think @Nikki makes a good point about how someone was raised. This is more commonly referred to in the field of psychology as protective factors, which are considered to be part of the “inoculation” factor in my opinion. In addition, there is value in the perspective that one takes in a given situation. For exampke, in the child abuse example, one may continue to view themselves as victimized and therefore unable to move on effectively. Another may view themselves as a survivor accentuating the positive. So, to then, is the perspective a person takes of a traumatic situation how that may unfold with reoccurring and related mental health issues.

  • Nancy Poitou, M.A., M.F.T., C.T.T.S.

    Nancy Poitou, M.A., M.F.T., C.T.T.S.

    August 30th, 2018 at 5:27 PM

    Anecdotally speaking, I have seen that a lot has to do with the support system, with child sexual abuse and rape it has a lot to do with who they disclosed to, the response the person had to the disclosure and the support system. Another factor I see is how soon they got into therapy after the trauma, the sooner the better. It is hard to improve when 20 years have passed.

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