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Resilience and Vulnerability to Traumatic Stress

This section of the Clinical Pages of the ATTC web site looks at the human stress and survival system:

  • How the body naturally responds to stress and threat
  • How we first develop our ability to respond to stress in balanced ways
  • How our stress systems become more vulnerable to being put off balance and overreacting to stress

Later sections will show how some of these vulnerabilities can leave us open to substance use disorders, post-trauma effects, depression, and anxiety—and how resilience can help us recover.

The concept of resilience—the ability of human beings to “bounce back” and rise above their circumstances—is a source of great hope and wonder.  It helps us understand the fact that so many people have survived and succeeded in spite of adversity, yet it always remains a little mysterious.  Far less mysterious is the fact that some painful life experiences and circumstances can raise our vulnerability to illness and social challenges.

When we speak of vulnerability to trauma, substance use disorders, and other challenges, we must always remember resiliency.  The fact that people develop post-deployment stress effects and SUDs does not mean the same people are not also strong and resilient in many ways.  This resilience may have contributed to their survival of these experiences and their effects, and it may tip the scales toward lasting recovery.

Service Members’ SUDs and post-deployment stress effects do not begin in childhood.  However, in childhood we all have experiences that make us more or less vulnerable to substances and to the effects of stress and threat.  We need to understand, not only how the stress and survival system works, but also how it develops, what makes it resilient, and what might have made it more vulnerable.

The enormous stigma directed toward SUDs and post-deployment stress reactions is a direct result of our culture’s widespread misunderstanding of the nature of these reactions.  Often the best antidote to that stigma—and the only way to back up the claim that “these are normal reactions to abnormal stress”—comes in the form of scientific explanation:  “We know these are normal reactions because this is how the human stress system works.”

For many returning veterans, an important first step is to learn that the challenges they have attributed to weakness or “going crazy” are instead the very predictable work of some brain structures that have names and shapes and live inside all of us.

War holds many experiences, and the human being naturally responds with many emotions.  Human emotions do not cause post-deployment stress effects or substance use disorders, though they are often amplified by these effects.  Severe post-trauma reactions might be thought of in many ways, including as the inability of certain higher brain regions to regulate the amygdala, the primitive brain structure charged with forming and storing memory associated with emotion—and with keeping us safe and alive (Schore, 2002).

To find out how this happens, it helps to look at how the brain and the rest of the body first learn to handle stress and threat.  What follows is a very quick and much-simplified overview of some of the major functions involved in resilient responses to stress, and in the development of resilience.

Next: How the Body Responds to Stress and Threat

Also in this section:

Please Note: Some of the considerations in these pages are taken from written works, but more are based on conversations with or presentations by veterans or therapists who work with trauma survivors.  The reader is encouraged, not to take these ideas as absolute or as the only important considerations, but to respond to them with curiosity and a desire to listen, read, and learn much more.

The material on all of the Clinical Pages is taken directly from the draft version of Finding Balance After the War Zone:  Considerations in the Treatment of Post-Deployment Stress Effects, a manual under development for the Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center and Human Priorities.  This draft is copyright © 2008, Pamela Woll.  Reprint permission is universally granted, but attribution is requested.
Click here for References and Other Resources.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the current version of the clinician’s manual draft.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the accompanying booklet for veterans.

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