Thriving through Trauma: The 5 R’s of Resilience and Recovery
You might not know it, but we are all trauma survivors
We all have been navigating the collective trauma of an ongoing pandemic. Across the globe, humankind faced uncertainty, threat of illness and death, disparities in access to life-giving medical care, and incomprehensible loss of life. Many of us have very personal traumatic experiences that are part of our survival stories, but together we all have faced the impact of the threat of COVID-19 and other major events in our lives and bodies. The results of our experiences can be as serious as diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder or clinical depression, but they can also result in reactions like sadness, substance use, irritability, hostility, exhaustion, emotional withdrawal, social isolation, and physical symptoms such as GI or cardiovascular problems.
Why do some people weather life’s storms better than others? The 5 R’s of Resilience and Recovery
There are things we can do to help ourselves recover from and develop resilience to seasons of struggle and threat. You probably are engaging in some of them already, but it is helpful to pay attention to what you are doing, and understand what you may be missing. We can all benefit from incorporating practices in our lives that connect with these 5 areas: regulation, reflection, relationships, respite and rest, and reasons. This framework provides a structure for engaging in practices in your life to help you negotiate through seasons of disruption and hardship. Click here for a detailed description of the 5 R’s. In this post, I discuss the first two R’s. In Part 2, I’ll tackle the next three.
Let’s start with the very core of things. The basis of our day-to-day living is controlled by our nervous systems. God made us with this incredible system of neurons that are firing all the time and telling our bodies to breathe, digest, react, rest, get moving, or stop and wait. Much of this happens outside of our awareness or attention and occurs automatically. But, we can begin to manage that complex system by engaging in practices to move us from the fight/flight sympathetic nervous system to the rest/recovery parasympathetic nervous system. A pathway to access the rest/recovery system is through the body. Practices help us override these automatic responses and create new neurological habits. Here are some recommendations of practices that help forge new pathways for your body to cultivate more resilient responses.
Pathway to regulation: Physical Regulation
Ask yourself – Do I feel tense and clenched? Are my shoulders up around my ears? Is my stomach upset or in a knot? Am I feeling relaxed? Light hearted? Am I tired? These are important questions and the body provides important clues about what we might need. A simple thing to do is to stop at any time of the day and notice if your shoulders are drawn up and clenched around your neck. If they are, allow them to release and draw them back down. Take a slow deep breath, intentionally bringing relaxation to the body. Click the links below to take you through more detailed practices around physical regulation.
Pathway to Regulation: Emotional Regulation
Ask yourself – Do I know what I am feeling? What emotions am I experiencing? The body might be giving us clues that we are feeling something we need to name. The idea of emotion regulation is not that we try to “stamp down” the emotions that we are feeling. Instead, learning successful emotion regulation means that we are able to name the emotion (think of all those emojis!), non-judgmentally reflect on what the emotion might be telling us, and then make plans on how to respond to our needs, even as we feel the emotion. Feel the feeling, in the midst of moving forward with our lives. It is accepting that the feeling is there for a reason, and has something to teach us.
Click here for a link to my practice to help with emotion regulation.
Physical and emotional regulation are powerful tools for building resilience. Attending to what we feel in our bodies helps us to connect to our emotional experience. While our emotions are embodied, they also connect to how we are thinking and to our deepest sources of meaning. In my own life, emotions are my allies. They are signposts or indicators of how I am doing and what matters.
Consider a time when you felt like a loved one did something that really hurt your feelings, but then later you found out that you had misunderstood. Perhaps it was a comment that seemed critical, or maybe you felt excluded from an event, or perhaps you believed you were betrayed in some way. When you found out the “truth” about the experience – say you heard something incorrectly, or you made an incorrect assumption – did the “truth” you discovered change what you believed about the situation? Often discovering new information alters how we feel. We can still feel the sting, but the clarification changes our interpretation of the situation and helps us to let go or de-escalate the hurt.
In a similar way, what we believe can also increase our pain. Whether these are beliefs about ourselves, others, or the world, our core beliefs can cause increased hurt (or the opposite, but we will get to that in a bit). For example, during the pandemic, I was surprised at how quickly people would criticize themselves for feeling tired or unproductive. Limited energy is a natural response to a protracted crisis situation. At the beginning of a crisis we are on high alert. Over time our bodies cannot continue to remain at elevated levels of arousal. It is natural to be fatigued, to have difficulty concentrating, and to be less productive. When we believe “something is wrong with me because I cannot get things done,” or we ask ourselves “why am I having so much trouble keeping up?”, we add self-criticism and shame to the mixture. Now we are no longer just tired. We are tired, ashamed, and depressed.
This is why Reflection (or right-thinking) is so important. We need to pay attention to the messages we tell ourselves. Do these messages reflect the truth? Or are they messages that connect to lies, familial or other cultural expectations that we erroneously accept? As you practice paying attention to your emotions, you can add the step of asking, “what is the story I am telling myself about this situation?” Or you may ask “what is the lie that I am believing in this situation?” Then ask, “what do I know is true?” or “what might be a more accurate story?” Christians may ask, “how does the God of love and grace see this story?”
What’s the next step?
A great way to “test” the truth of these internal messages or stories is to share them with a trusted friend or family member. This is one of the reasons why the third R, Relationships, is so important. In Part 2 of this post, I will discuss Relationships as well as Rest, and Reasons. There are many avenues to begin to Regulate and Reflect. Prayer often helps us physically and emotionally regulate since it quiets us and connects us to God and what matters most deeply to us. We discover parts of ourselves in those moments with God. Silent meditation, lectio divina, and centering prayer are other ways to quiet the mind and look at our thoughts, asking for guidance and clarity. Sometimes going for a walk or talking with a trusted friend helps us develop skills around regulating and reflecting. Consider what works for you. I invite you to engage in Regulation and Reflection this month. If you already have practices in place for these two R’s, send us a note and tell us what is working for you.