Misunderstanding Trauma—and Resilience

Perhaps our culture is accidentally creating PTSD by expecting it, assuming that no one could possibly emerge from a trauma psychologically intact.


As you may have noticed, trauma is everywhere these days, from the friend "traumatized" by her haircut to the talk show guest eager to share her traumatic past. Victims are allowed to "speak their trauma" in court.

Conventional wisdom insists that anyone who experiences trauma will end up emotionally crippled forever. This belief has allowed us to become extremely unforgiving: If a victim is never going to have a good day again, why should the perpetrator?

The idea that trauma changes everything is so common now that it is taken as gospel. A recent New Yorker article by Parul Sehgal traces how trauma became the all-purpose backstory for a huge swath of today's TV shows, movies, and books. Peek into the past of characters from Claire Underwood to Ted Lasso, and you will find that they were deeply hurt by something or someone, which somehow explains everything from their utter ruthlessness (hers) to their irrepressible cheer (his). Viewers easily accept the idea that trauma, above all else, made these people who they are.

Psychiatrist Sally Satel, co-author of 2005's One Nation Under Therapy, sums up that view this way: "You've done something to me, and now I'm tormented with the memories and will never lead a normal life!" While "I'm not saying that can't happen," Satel says, it is far less common than people tend to think.

Most people who suffer trauma end up psychologically fine, says Samantha Boardman, a psychiatrist who teaches at Weill Cornell Medicine and the author of the recent book Everyday Vitality (Penguin Life). Boardman points to Londoners during the Blitz. Even back then, the authorities were so concerned that the population would go mad with fear and grief that they set up three hospitals exclusively for psychiatric patients. The basket cases never materialized. Those British upper lips stayed so stiff that the mental hospitals were turned over to the army to care for wounded soldiers.

Fast forward to 9/11, another traumatic event. Surveys of New Yorkers six months afterward found us almost back to our normal stress levels. "We have lost sight of the fact that people are rather more resilient and resourceful than we have tended to think about them," psychiatrist Simon Wessely observed in a 2006 lecture.

In fact, Wessely said, the one thing that seems to stymie the normal recovery process is professional intervention, a.k.a. "psychological debriefing." He noted that "there have been over 15 trials in which we randomly allocate people to receive debriefing or not, and we know now, for certainty, that this does not work." Worse, "the three best studies, with the longest follow-up, have shown that those who randomly received the debriefing were more likely to develop PTSD"—post-traumatic stress disorder.

It's almost as if our culture is accidentally creating PTSD by expecting it, based on the assumption that no one could possibly emerge from a trauma psychologically intact. In trying to be kind and caring, we are crippling people instead. For the sake of the traumatized themselves, it's time to stop treating them as damaged goods.

Another reason to stop overestimating the impact of trauma is that it allows our kindness to curdle into vengeance. "Future historians will look back on our era and marvel at the outsized place we gave to trauma, how it tied together myth makings and social control," says George Mason University anthropologist Roger Lancaster, author of 2011's Sex Panic and the Punitive State.

When we enshrine trauma as the most defining part of a person's life, any crime becomes existentially awful. With the proliferation of victim impact statements, the courtroom has morphed into a counseling office, aiming to help the victim feel heard and healed rather than simply ascertaining whether the defendant committed the crime. The victim's assumed unending trauma, Lancaster says, "basically becomes the rationale for giving longer and longer sentences."

The more power we give to trauma, the more power we give to the state. Under-estimating human resilience is warping our culture, obscuring the ability of both victims and wrongdoers to change.