Resilience to trauma is deeply affected by our connections to the people, places, and things around us. It is important to establish safe and secure relationships for resilience to develop. Understanding this community is essential in growth after difficult events.
Jakob van Wielink, MA, is an international grief counselor, trainer, and executive coach. He is a partner at De School voor Transitie in the Netherlands, a faculty mentor at the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition in the USA, and is affiliated with IMD Business School’s (Advanced) High Performance Leadership Program in Switzerland. He recently published Loss, Grief, and Attachment in Life Transitions. A Clinician’s Guide to Secure Base Counseling.
JA: How would you personally define resilience in coping and trauma?
JvW: Resilience for me is all about our ability to recover from, or to rebound after, impactful life events. Recovery then implies coming back to the joy of life and the ability to (re)connect to our life’s calling. It is about being able to pick up our lives in the wake of loss and tragedy, fully acknowledging the gravity of what happened. We have grief, but the grief does not have us. It is thus being able to find new meaning after seemingly meaningless and hurtful events.
Resilience is both the process and the outcome of a balance between the demands of integrating the loss in our life story while, at the same time, meeting the ongoing demands of life despite the fact the world as we knew it was possibly shattered. People respond in vastly different ways to losses and impactful events. Grief is as personal as a fingerprint. I find hope in the resilience of the vast majority of people who respond to loss.
JA: What are some ways understanding coping, trauma, and the brain can help us live more resiliently?
JvW: Firstly, I think it is important to realize that trauma is never determined by the event itself. It is not the event that is traumatic, it is our reaction to the event which potentially makes it a traumatic experience. Given their personal levels of resilience, not everybody who experienced the same impactful event will suffer to the same extent. Secondly, people who respond resiliently had the roots of resilience before the impactful event.
Resilience is formed in connection to secure bases during our very early childhood, in the same process that forms our attachment style. Secure attachment to available and responsive figures, typically and firstly our mother and father, but also among others–grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, trainers, and coaches–hardwires resilience in our brain and nervous system. It creates a larger tolerance for stressful events. Attachment figures function as secure bases when they not only care for us (providing safety, comfort, and consolation), but when they also dare us to take risks, go out into the world, explore, and seek challenges. That security gets internalized, providing resilience. An event becomes traumatic only by the inability to connect with secure bases in the (direct) aftermath of an event.
JA: What are some ways people can cultivate resilience in coping and trauma?
JvW: Resilience can be cultivated by reaching out to existing and new secure bases. Given our early childhood circumstances, an insecure connection can develop into more secure attachment styles later on. This does require practice and discipline. Secure bases can be people; but, secure bases are also places, objects, earlier events and even goals for the future that provide us with a sense of caring and daring. Secure bases that we can reach out to and connect with provide us with a deep and stable comfort zone from which we can explore. Having lived through impactful events can in itself also become a secure base, cultivating resilience.
JA: Any advice for how we might use an understanding of resilience in coping, trauma, and the brain to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?
JvW: The best way to support anyone is by being a secure base yourself for that person. Be present and available, fully caring and fully daring at the same time. While there can never be too much caring, caring without daring will turn out to be rescuing and stripping the other of his responsibility. On the other hand, daring without caring can exceed someone’s resilience. Caring then should always precede daring.
Practically, care is best given by listening, being silent, dealing with your own discomfort and unease, asking the difficult questions as to how the other one is feeling, acknowledging those feelings, and respecting the answers. Care is best given by not accepting no for an answer when offering support or by asking what meaning the other one can reconstruct after the events. Engage in dialogue, balancing the importance of dealing with both the demands of the loss (the grief work) and the demands of restoration (the tasks of everyday life).
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
JvW: Currently I am working on the theme of calling: the importance of living and leading our lives from calling and rediscovering calling in the wake of loss. I am co-authoring a book on leadership and calling, following the themes of the Transition Cycle we introduced in Loss, Grief, and Attachment in Life Transitions: A Clinician’s Guide to Secure Base Counseling.
Our calling serves as a foundation supporting the roles we fulfill in various domains of life: personal, professional, social and organizational. Connecting to our calling unleashes our potential to take on challenges in each of these domains, including ones we were not active in before. Living our calling and leading from it enables us to make our uniquely personal contribution to the world. It allows us to live and work based on our deepest values and to be authentic.
Loss, Grief, and Attachment in Life Transitions. A Clinician’s Guide to Secure Base Counseling. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2020.