What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s a common phrase in Western culture. The notion is intended to take the sting out of adverse events or trauma, suggesting that they serve to increase resilience and perhaps prepare an individual for future stressors. This is not untrue. In fact, we often deliberately put ourselves under stress for the purpose of becoming stronger. This is easily explained by looking at physical stress. If an individual wants to become stronger physically, he or she must purposefully but his or her body under stress, intentionally breaking down the muscles so they rebuild stronger.
This concept, as true and useful as it may be, is not universal. Eustress (healthy stress) does make us stronger and more resilient. For, stress to be useful, however, it must within the limits of what we can reasonably manage through our resources—much like how you would structure physical training. Traumatic stress is just the opposite. Traumatic stress is often unpredictable, and outside what we can reasonably manage. This would be the case if I put my body under physical stress by lifting too much weight or running a marathon without training. Traumatic stress on my body would likely leave me with a physical injury and in many ways, I would actually be weaker rather than stronger—less capable of handling future physical stress.
This is the case with post-traumatic stress (PTS). If the event or stressor is unpredictable or outside the realm of what we can manage it leaves us with a psychological injury. So now, rather than being able to tolerate more stress, we actually tolerate less. The result is hypervigilance which may appear as anxiety, anger, being “set off” or “triggered” easily or dissociation in which we are depressed, numb, and checked out. Hypervigilance and dissociation are about safety. Hypervigilance and dissociation are sophisticated mechanisms from deep within our nervous system that help us to survive threatening circumstances (I’ll expand on this another time). Though a traumatized individual has survived perhaps extreme circumstances, now the smallest insult or annoyance is enough to trigger these survival reactions. Loved ones may feel they must walk on eggshells further isolating the survivor and decreasing much needed resources.
If stress is unpredictable and threatening (outside what we can manage) it becomes very difficult to return to a state of normal—i.e. recover from the psychological injury. Doing this involves treating the psychological injury as well as increasing resources. Resources include anything that helps us manage life and stress. They can be support systems, coping skills, faith, counseling, healthy living, and this list goes on. Treating the psychological injury (PTS) focuses on creating safety, making sense of the experience, and helping the nervous system “deactivate” and return to state of normal functioning.