Tracy Stecker, Ph.D.

Tracy Stecker Ph.D.



Learning Resilience During Trauma

Why you should plan for a disaster by underestimating your skills.

Posted Nov 27, 2012

Serenity isn’t about freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.


Most of us do not spend time thinking about how we are going to cope UNTIL stress has arrived. This often leaves us feeling unprepared and overwhelmed. Granted, we can’t always predict the situations that we will have to deal with in life; however, having a plan to cope is a wise idea. When military strategists prepare for battle, they do not say, “We will deal with the situation when we get to it with whatever we think is best at that moment”. They plan ahead. They have a plan and a back-up plan. Yet, most of us coping with this thing called “Life” are not given extensive training in managing life stress and the occasional trauma and drama. We learn as we go.

Not smart.

It can sometimes even be difficult to cope with day-in and day-out life, but during trauma, it can be virtually impossible. Here’s why….it’s hard to think straight during a traumatic event. Most of us get stuck on four questions during a traumatic situation, “What?!?” “Why?!?” “How?!?” “Why?!?” Yes, I listed “why” twice. That’s because many of us stay stuck at the why of a situation.

I recommend to each and every person willing to read this blog to consider your plan to cope with a traumatic situation. I spoke with many military personnel who had prepared for battle. They prepared for death. They planned and PRACTICED for this inevitability. And yet, several found that while they believed they were mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically ready to cope with death in war, there was that one situation that they hadn’t quite anticipated. And that one situation crept into their lives and destroyed their plans to cope. Prepare for trauma by UNDERESTIMATING how prepared you are.

I can’t tell you the number of people who told me they felt prepared to cope. They overestimated their skills. And they underestimated the power of trauma. Prepare to feel pain. Prepare for that moment when the emotional pain feels unbearable. That’s the moment that defines resilience.

Resilience is the capacity to cope with stress. So while you contemplate your plan to cope, give yourself a second to consider the reality that during a traumatic event you may not have access to your favorite coping skills. It might be nice to take a day, have a massage, read a good book and get together with a favorite friend, but all of those might be out of the question depending on the situation. Because this is often the case, prepare a broad list of coping skills so that you can access a couple of them if necessary in any situation. Many people resort to their favorite one or two coping skills rather than utilizing more, like 44 of them. Have an effective plan. For example, do not rely on 99 bottles of beer per week. If necessary, a couple of bottles of beer per week might be ok but also have 99 OTHER skills.

Everything in moderation. Even coping skills.

Consider for a moment folks surviving a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area, or Hurricane Sandy in the NJ/NY area. Favorite coping skills may not be accessible. I knew someone who prepared for Hurricane Katrina by stockpiling plenty of bottled water and canned goods. He also filled all four of his vehicles with gas before the hurricane hit. He hadn’t anticipated that every bottle of water, every can of food, all four cars and his home would end up being washed out to sea (or severely damaged and rendered useless). What good did gas do to a car that is severely damaged with water, especially considering the reality that all of the roads closest to him were also severely damaged or blocked with a million pieces of trees, homes, sand and debris? His best plan might have been to plan on devastation. He did not have access to food, water, electricity, roads, friends, phone service, computer service, work, beer, massage or otherwise for weeks. What does someone do then?

Perhaps the most important aspect of resilience is internal. The work that is done on the inside, those messages we say in our own brain that help us cope. Turns out those messages are pretty darned important. Here’s an example: Consider again the fellow who gassed up all of his cars and prepared by stashing extra food and water in his home pre-Katrina. Post-Katrina, he discovered that his home, along with all of his possessions, were gone. Washed out to sea or destroyed. No access to his work or any of his material possessions. Imagine what he said to himself. He could have said things like, “This is completely unfair. I’ve lost everything. I’ll never get any of that back. It’s too hard to deal with this situation”.

Now let’s throw in a twist. Imagine that a month later, he and his wife learn that she has terminal cancer. What would he say about that?

Turns out (and this is a true story), he said, “God, you have my attention”.

He surrendered. When hell came with high water, he realized he had no avenues to cope. So instead of focusing on how bad things were, he dug deep inside himself and he began working on anything he could to help the situation. He found others that needed help and tried to figure out what he could give. He didn’t ask for help. He gave help. He surrendered. His wife passed away later that year, but he could look back on that time and say he did everything he could to help. The statements he said to himself during those hard moments were the key difference between resilience and devastation. He said things like, “This is really hard. What can I do to make this better”. He said, “Not all is lost, at least I still have friends and family”.

Consider for a moment the messages you say to yourself when things seem hard. Consider that you have complete control over those messages. You can change a message such as, “My life sucks” to “This is really hard. I don’t have control over all of it, but I do have control over whether I can find something positive”.  And this subtle difference in self-talk makes a huge difference in coping.

Wise Joseph Campbell said, “Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging”.

But in the meantime, have a plan.

In summary, plan ahead, underestimate your skills, overestimate the power of the trauma, and WATCH THAT SELF TALK. Turns out, in the heat of the moment, we have an incredible capacity to lie to ourselves about how bad things are and how unfair life is. While things might be bad and life is unfair…you don’t have it any worse than any of the rest of us. Practice counting your blessings.