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Fostering Psychological Resilience in Ourselves and Others

Are trigger warnings helpful?

Recently, some professional colleagues were intently engaged in a discussion about “triggers” and “trigger warnings” regarding an artistic display with somewhat violent imagery. One friend expressed the need to notify anyone attending that the contents might be disturbing, while others argued that was being overly protective and that directly encountering such content in a safe, controlled setting was more likely to be helpful than harmful. The fundamental underlying question was: "How do we foster and develop mental health resilience in people?”

A considerable body of research tells us that experiencing somatic disease, significant trauma, and chronic stress often precedes the development of mental health disorders. Yet, most people who experience these events do not develop mental health problems. What distinguishes those who develop problems from those who do not? Are there resilience factors that seem to provide some inoculation or immunity from mental health problems even in the face of significant traumatic events?

In the case of viruses or other infections, we have a clear idea of how immunity develops. Some immunity is genetic. Past exposure of a group to infections helps a society to develop immunity from the pathogen’s worst effects. After a bout of the chicken pox, our body produces antibodies to prevent us from getting it again. Immunizations for diseases help prevent us from developing an illness even when we are exposed. A few years ago, the prevailing thought was that we should completely avoid all contact with germs. Anti-bacterial cleaners and disinfectant soaps proliferated, only to find that total avoidance of germs only prevented us from developing antibodies we needed to resist disease.

Mental health immunity appears to be similar. If we avoid disappointments, psychological challenges, and disturbing events we fail to develop the psychological resilience that allows us to cope with the inevitable traumas and challenges that occur in everyone’s life. Living in a psychologically sterile environment with no adversity results in reduced resilience. We need to try new things and have successes and failures, to adapt to all of the ups and downs in life.

At the same time, if we are flooded with more psychological traumas and stress beyond our ability to cope, the likelihood of developing mental health problems increases. The ideal scenario is to experience a balance of positive and negative experiences, with time and space to cope and recover between adverse experiences so that resilience builds over time.

Resilience develops best in a social environment that is supportive through challenges. In veterinary medicine, they talk about “herd immunity.” This refers to the protection of all individuals when most of the herd is inoculated. In mental health, “herd immunity” and an environment balanced with positive and negative emotions accepted and supported by those around the individual leads to the best “inoculation” against mental health problems.

People who have had very high exposure to particularly difficult psychological challenges but do not develop mental health problems tend to have a number of protective factors: first, they tend to be well connected to others in a supportive community; second, they tend to be physically active and involved; and third, they tend to engage in activities that give their life a sense of meaning and purpose.

Back to my discussion of “triggers” and “trigger warnings” with my friends. Research on fostering resilience would say that we want to expose people to increasing levels of stressors, with support in order to build resilience and improve adaptation to adversity across the lifespan. The key is to prepare people and support people, but not avoid exposure. We can intentionally help people to develop resistance by helping them to develop protective factors and providing support through life’s challenges.

Here is a quick video on building psychological protective factors and resilience:

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