After Stress and Trauma

Lesson objective:

This lesson outlines the difficulty of assessing the effects and our adaptations to stress and trauma. It also covers the best and adaptive responses to stress and trauma in new innovative ways

The effects of chronic stress and trauma are extensive, and a host of other psychological and emotional experiences like grief, shame, and hopelessness can exacerbate the effects of traumatic experiences. 

Indeed, it may feel as if the negative impacts and changes experienced in the aftermath of trauma are permanent. 

But all of these negative and unwanted experiences are not the end. 

We can continue to adapt towards a desired, healthier functioning. 

Just as circumstances around us can change dramatically in a short period, human beings are capable of tremendous change and growth, over the short and long term.

This brings us to several important points: 

First, we are not the sum of our traumatic experiences or hardships. 

Second, the effects of trauma-related hardships do not erase our identity. 

And thirdly, each of us can, with effort and time, begin to confront and control many of the reactions and disturbances that have accumulated over the course of traumas. 

We are resilient creatures. We can still grow and recover elements lost or disrupted.

Just as the brain and body adapt in the face of stress and trauma, we can adapt in the direction of growth and well-being, even in the face of continued adversity. 

We will discuss the underlying scientific mechanisms that make healing and growth possible in the next videos. 

For now, though, we want to introduce some of the basic concepts, some core components of “what comes next” after witnessing, feeling, and experiencing the many disruptions of stress and trauma. 

After extended adversity, our control tower may operate differently than in the past, but the equipment is still there, and we can bring things back into healthy alignment. 

We can adapt. But just as each person’s reaction to stress and trauma is unique, each person’s journey towards managing, healing, and possibly reversing those reactions is also unique. 

No two people deal with, manage, and recover from the effects of stress and trauma in the same way. That said, there are a few concepts that help clarify how and in what ways healing is possible.

In times of constant change and continued adversity, assessing how we have been affected by stress and trauma may be difficult. 

Some symptoms and adaptations are immediately evident in the aftermath of traumatic events; others take time and reveal themselves only years later, in certain behaviors, thoughts, or responses to new stimuli and situations. 

Just as “assessing the damage” may be difficult, it may also be difficult to assess how we are growing, adapting, or recovering in positive directions after stressful experiences. Both harm and growth are sometimes understood in only hindsight. 

Importantly, no person is the sum of their traumatic experiences or hardships. 

The adaptations to the brain, body, and behavior in the aftermath of or during stress and trauma are not the end of the story. 

We can manage those negative effects. We can cope with them. And in many cases, we can reverse them. 

It may seem unrealistic at first, but stress and trauma can even lead to tremendous new growth, to new and improved parts of our personality that emerge only after difficult experiences. Hardship can lead to many positive adaptations and changes.

When we talk about coping with the effects of stress and trauma, and learning to react in new ways, two important terms are used: resilience and post-traumatic growth which we will talk about next. 

And remember that while stressful and traumatic experiences are devastating, we do have internal capabilities, skills and resources innate within us that help us cope and recover.