The Strengths of Trauma Survivors in Times of Crisis
Why trauma survivors may function better than others during crises.
Posted July 18, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Mass shootings, pandemics, and political violence are just a few events of the events causing many to experience overwhelming fear, stress, anger, and depression. Yet, you’re managing well. Why? It might be because you’ve experienced trauma.
Trauma survivors may have distinctive internal experiences that may not be shared by those who haven’t experienced trauma. It’s these experiences that might provide you with an advantage in your ability to emotionally cope and function during crises.
Your body is already in a state of hyperarousal
Hyperarousal is a common symptom of trauma that doesn’t always go away once a traumatic experience has ended. If your body is persistently ready to fight off danger, run away from it, remain still until the danger passes, or comply in order to survive; you might be experiencing some level of hyperarousal. You can experience one or more of these responses when you encounter a threat, and trauma causes these responses to stick around even after the threat has passed.
Ruth is a 52-year-old complex trauma survivor who was present during the Highland Park, Illinois mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade. She heard the gunshots, immediately grabbed her grandchildren, and ran. Her family is telling her that she’s a hero. Ruth told me, “People don’t understand. I had to keep myself alive for 15 years while I was a victim of incest and physical abuse. I have a Ph.D. in survival.”
Ruth does not recall any changes in her mood or physical sensations during or after the shooting. This might be because she was already in a state of hyperarousal, and it was this familiarity that allowed her to quickly get herself and her two grandchildren to safety. A constant hyperarousal state isn’t something that you want to remain in, as it can have detrimental emotional and physical effects on you. Ruth is aware of this and is participating in trauma therapy. She reports, “I’d like to have a Ph.D. is something else for a change; like gardening or sassy mothering.”
You’re skilled at problem-solving in real time
Trauma creates a hyper-focus on survival that some people have never experienced. This focus can teach you to quickly focus on solutions in order to promote your safety. Some trauma survivors reported that they can shut off their emotions and distracting thoughts long enough to engage in complex problem-solving.
Fernando is a 24-year-old who was laid off during the pandemic with no savings and was unable to find full-time work for 8 months. As a survivor of child neglect, he learned how to earn and manage his own money when he was 11. As a result, he was able to buy food, clothing, and medication to support his survival. The day that Fernando was laid off he created a detailed plan.
“I know that I should have felt scared,” he told me. “But I didn’t. Honestly, it felt pretty normal. I know that it was going to be hard, but I also knew that I could power through it.” And he did. Fernando kept himself afloat with a series of freelance gigs, bartering, selling belongings, and volunteering at food banks in exchange for food.
Experiencing trauma can create resilience, which can be defined as "the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life and come back at least as strong as before." Your ability to adapt is based upon any physical or psychological coping mechanisms that protect you from harm. For example, if you have a dry cough — a common symptom of COVID-19 — you might feel nervous and tell yourself, “Calm down, let’s see what this is before I stress.” If you’re able to adapt and return to a state of calm, this might be a sign of resilience, and trauma survivors may have more resilience than those who haven’t experienced trauma.
Trey is a 42-year-old who was incarcerated in a U.S. prison for over 5 years. In that prison, he was placed in solitary confinement and denied food for long periods of time. He learned to ration his food and to manipulate and/or bride guards into giving him food. When COVID-19 emerged, he didn’t feel the need to stockpile food or and he didn’t worry.
“If they told me today that all the grocery stores were closing, I’d be alright,” he said. “I know how many calories I need to eat per day in order to live and as long as I get that I’ll be good. Going without food wouldn’t be a shock for me, because I’ve been preparing for that for years. It’s not a great thing but I feel like I’m miles ahead of other people who've never been without food.”
There are many people who’ve experienced trauma who are having adverse reactions to the crises in our world. In fact, many trauma survivors report experiencing increased trauma triggers as a result of these events. However, there are also survivors who report feeling calm, prepared, and even empowered. Your experiences of trauma could be providing you with your own unique strengths.
American Psychological Association. 2022. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Website retrieved at