• Charlie Jasper

Resiliency and Trauma (Pt. 1) - You Are Not Broken

I listen to four podcasts. Here are the two relevant ones: Fieldcraft Survival and Man of War.

This past winter, Fieldcraft Survival had a guest who was a clinical/research psychology and behavioral neurology fellow named Jeff Holguin. Jeff works almost exclusively with veterans and first responders and specializes in trauma, and helping turn post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic growth. By nature of the field, the vast majority of those he helps are men. However, the knowledge has a significant degree of transference to women. Here's my understanding of what he's discovered and how he works with people. We will start from the perspective of veterans and then move onto the civilian sector.

First, let's get a rudimentary understanding of trauma and what it means according to Holguin.

There are quite a few things that help us cope with primary, secondary, and tertiary trauma, and forgive me because I hope I explain these right, and define them before I go into it a little bit.

  1. Primary trauma: Person A gets in a car accident, or mugged and stabbed, etc.

  2. Secondary trauma: Person B witnesses these horrible things happen to Person A, or sees the immediate aftermath of the incident (i.e. runs out of the house to give first aid).

  3. Tertiary trauma: community trauma, the friends and family feeling the effects of Person A being hurt, but not witnessing it.

Crucial to understand is not everyone, especially veterans, who witnesses trauma is broken. The perception is that guys who've been down range didn't effectively deal with the terror of war and are therefore broken, and if they’re not broken, they're a psychopath, and if they’re not a psychopath, they're crazy, etc.

That's not the case. What helps mitigate the damage of trauma is community. Individual resiliency bolsters community resiliency, and community resiliency boosts individual resiliency. How does this work? For men, it's action. We don't typically stay sad as long as women. We turn our sadness and fear (symptoms of some post-traumatic stress) into anger and action. Women recover better through talking and sharing their feelings of experiences. Uncontrolled anger is also a symptom of PTS/PTSD, but through therapy and meditation we can channel it and effectively deal with it. Additionally, for men, talking it out is fine, but the best therapy and meditation are task-based: martial arts, carpentry, shooting, cooking, building a canoe, anything productive that can better us from a skills and knowledge perspective... These are all great things and results increase within a group setting. So you’re in a Krav Maga class and you have a friend who’s a sparring partner, you work on building things with a friend, you cook with friends or loved ones (not as a lead-up to entertaining, that brings different stress).

Another thing is the idea of trauma therapy must be temporary. Full stop. If you keep reliving it, you won't finish the growth. The growth-period will vary for different people, but there’s essentially no reason to still be traumatized by an event 20 years ago. You should be working through that and growing. Holding onto that trauma in a painful way that limits your social and individual functionality is unhealthy. You will still have the bad memories, and certain triggers that will remind you of an event or a series of events, but, basically, you should be "over it," or rather, You don't want to be stuck in what otherwise is a victim mentality, which is actually biologically appealing because it means other people will take care of us. It's called a sick-role.

Increasingly, research is showing the brain is far more plastic than we thought: neural pathways are formed and blocked with every significant event, especially trauma. The task at hand is reshaping those pathways, literally, through thought processes. In some ways, it can be training yourself to look at the bigger picture, instead of minutiae, or occurrences in a vacuum. In others, it can be focusing on those events as being in a vacuum: this person acted this way and that’s a them problem, but it's also out of character for that person, move on and work it out. These two things support each other (bigger picture versus vacuum) just like resiliency (individual versus community).

The last thing I'll discuss here is fitness: physical fitness is incredibly important to mental toughness and resiliency. Physical stress and injury recovery are closely linked to emotional stress and trauma recovery. It all has to do with heart-rate and breathing, somehow.

For more information on Jeff's research and results, the link takes you to one of his peer-reviewed studies (for purchase, sorry…).

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