The Role of Your Mind and Body in Coping With Trauma
Two ways to prevent trauma from destroying your life.
Posted February 16, 2023 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Some people bounce back from negative life events much more effectively. This resilient response can be trained.
- Religion is a coping mechanism that can help restructure the way you think about a negative life experience.
- Education prior to a traumatic event can prevent long-term mental health consequences.
- Gaining a sense of self-efficacy is crucial in effectively dealing with trauma and negative life events.
In the face of traumatic experiences, some people recover easily while others do not. I have interviewed many people who lived through childhood sexual abuse, rape, extreme violence, severe disease, and chronic illness, and while they all were deeply affected and reflective on their experiences, some had recovered faster than others. Their mental health was less impacted, their life maintained some sort of normalcy, and they sought out help faster and more successfully.
I was struck by what makes these people different from the rest. They are resilient, meaning that they are particularly good at engaging adaptive strategies to recover from acute stress or chronic forms of adversity. The way we respond to adversity is usually referred to as ‘coping’, and is essentially about how you deal with things happening to you1. There are various types of coping strategies. One of the most studied is called ‘cognitive reappraisal’, which specifically focuses on reframing how you think about an event. This is an iterative process, where we reinterpret our situation over multiple time points, thus the process is called cognitive reappraisal due to its ongoing and active nature.
What makes some people better at cognitive reappraisal? Research has found that brain activity differs between resilient and non-resilient people exposed to the same trauma2. These differences are associated with distinct gene expression, but it is unknown whether these differences are inherent or acquired.
Resilience and coping are often discussed in the context of responding to and recovering from negative events. An important aspect of resilience is that it can be trained to help you prepare for adversity by practicing healthy coping strategies 3. In this post, I dive into two examples of coping strategies that have helped prevent trauma from leaving a lasting mark in people I interviewed
Cognitive reappraisal through religious and non-religious mindsets can change the way you think about a negative life experience
If you talk to a neuroscientist or psychologist, we will often say that cognitive reappraisal involves re-interpreting an event by changing one’s attention and emotions toward it. However, there are different methods to do this, one of which is the ancient practice of religion. Several studies have identified clear parallels between cognitive reappraisal and religious thinking4,5,6. The conclusion: Both can help people find purpose and/or meaning amid trauma and adversity.
One way that religion helps promote resilience is by helping people find meaning in their adversity6. One interviewee said: “God gives you what you can handle. There is always a reason for what’s happening, but I do not necessarily have to understand. I just need to keep going with the task I have been given” (JB, age 45, Colorado USA). To her, religion created a path forward which helped her maintain a positive outlook. An optimistic outlook is associated with better mental well-being, and religious practice correlates with reduced long-term mental health consequences in the face of acute or chronic adversity7,8.
A similar, but non-religious, cognitive reappraisal strategy is to think about what one can gain from their circumstances. Instead of attributing adversity to a part of a god’s greater plan, it is seen as a random event that is a stepping stone for personal growth. “The idea that 'everything happens for a reason' is outdated to me. The reason is bad luck. It has not allowed me, but rather forced me to focus on what is important in my life, to understand what makes me feel fulfilled. The illness has forced me to become more like myself, but I don’t know if I really wanted that” (JE, age 38, Zwolle Netherlands). In contrast to the other interviewee, this person saw their adversity as ‘bad luck’ that could just as well not have happened. However, instead of wallowing in her misery and frustration, she chose to utilize her situation as an opportunity for self-inquiry.
A similarity between both interviewees was the importance they placed on social support. Community, whether that be through friends, colleagues, or religious practice, can help change the way we think of our negative life experiences, and thus aid in the process of cognitive reappraisal. This may be one of the ways that religious practice can mitigate long-lasting effects of trauma. Finding meaning or purpose in trauma and knowing that you have a community to lean on can provide the foundation for turning post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic growth regardless of your religiosity.
Education can prevent traumatic responses to negative life events
A less discussed and researched topic is that of education as a preventative strategy to reduce the impact of future trauma. I found it interesting that two people specifically mentioned their previous education as key factors in understanding their own responses to chronic illness and rape, respectively. Both interviewees’ education revolved around the body, both in theory (how does the body function) and practice (how the body can be treated and how the body performs).
“I believe I was less affected by the rape, both acutely and in the long-term, compared to many survivors, because of my background in body work. My own body work practice enabled me to understand my body's reactions, and I knew what it needed to heal after the rape”” (LH, age 76, Georgia, USA)
“I have been so frustrated with my illness. But my work as a dance performer researcher has helped me connect the dots between my body and my mind. My work gave me something to hold on to, it provided me with an understanding and embodiment of myself with the disease" (JE, age 38, Zwolle, Netherlands)
Psychoeducation refers to the philosophy of providing people with information about the mind, feelings, and body to help them better understand their own sensations and reactions9. Psychoeducation can be done after a trauma or before a trauma has occurred. The power of psychoeducation prior to a trauma is its ability to prevent severe symptomatology and reduce the associated treatment load. Psychoeducation as a preventative strategy is particularly useful for groups of people at high likelihood of experiencing trauma—for example, military personnel. Indeed, both military personnel and first-time pregnant females are less likely to experience post-traumatic stress responses after receiving psychoeducation10,11.
Psychoeducation is not just about reading a book, watching a documentary, or listening to a lecture. A key aspect of its success is to practice strategies to regulate your body and attention. This practical training is important for several reasons:
- After enough training, you will be able to regulate your own physiology and cognition, even during negative life events, panic attacks, or trauma flashbacks. This ability to self-regulate will reduce the long-term effects a negative event will have on your body and mindset, and help you restructure how you think about the events.
- Understanding your body will help you identify what kind of support you need at a given time. Do you need to see a psychotherapist? Do you need to meditate? To pray? Do you need to go kickboxing? These insights instill you with self-efficacy—the belief that you have the capacity to do what it takes to achieve your goals—which correlates with higher mental well-being.
Psychoeducation has the potential to change more than one life. A new phenomenon is that of community-initiated care (CIC), which trains the public to support people with mental health challenges and help them access resources when they need professional help12. There is no doubt that effective implementation of CIC can revolutionize mental well-being and healthcare, in large part because we can prevent a “light” depression from turning into a “severe” one, and we can catch a person with early signs of disordered eating before they fall into a full-fledged eating disorder. But there is another benefit that is often not mentioned in this research: By educating the public on how to help and support others with mental health challenges, we are helping them deal better with their own (future) circumstances. Imagine a world where we train children, youth, and adults to understand how your body and mind react to trauma and adversity and what it needs to recover. Not only will we become better at non-judgmentally supporting others, but we can also support ourselves and self-regulate our own emotions more effectively.
Preventing trauma from taking root
In sum, there are various ways we can prepare ourselves to mitigate the effects of adverse life events, whether they be acute or chronic. One of the most important actions is to restructure the way you think about those events, with the help of psychotherapeutic strategies, religion, or something completely different that works for you. If you live or work in a high-stress environment, psychoeducation will likely help you prevent these experiences from causing trauma. When that’s said, everyone, regardless of high-stress exposure, benefits from psychoeducation. Understanding why one’s body feels and reacts the way it does can determine how a person decides to tackle a situation. Will they reach out to a trusted friend or family member? Will they run away? Will they turn to violence? Empowering people with the skill sets to understand and regulate their own bodies is one of the most promising ways to prevent adversity from leaving a lasting mark, and in the long run, one of the most effective ways of combating mental illness. Ultimately, these strategies will help a person find purpose and meaning in the face of trauma.
A longer version of this article was published in a recent newsletter in which I also dive into the neurobiology of resilience. This article contains the sections that relate to the lived experience of resilience and coping.
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