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Make resilience cool again

A new study demonstrates why endless personal trauma-mining is destructive, not restorative

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Make resilience cool again
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I’m not sure what this says about my algorithm, but every so often an obnoxious meme floats across my Instagram feed: “Procrastination is a trauma response!” it yells, before trying really hard to redirect me to some pop psychology podcast.

This has become trendy. In our therapeutic age, everything is pathologized, from shoplifting to drug use to having a bad day. One can see the appeal. Delegating responsibility for your own bad behavior to some academic-sounding diagnosis can be quite convenient, if you don’t mind sacrificing your self-respect.

But were we to follow this line of thinking to a logical conclusion, I don’t think we’d like where it leads. I shudder to imagine what else might be a trauma response (and therefore not our fault, and therefore totally acceptable, and therefore deserving of accommodation, and therefore helplessly chronic).“Being rude is a trauma response. Self-absorption is a trauma response. Being shy on a first date is a trauma response. Showing up late to an interview is a trauma response. Voting for Donald Trump is a trauma response. Not voting for Donald Trump is a trauma response. Inflicting trauma is a trauma response!”

It might be funny if it weren’t so psychologically poisonous.

Last summer, a group of researchers released findings from a clever experiment designed to study how people who’ve endured real childhood trauma fare into adulthood. They came to a profound conclusion: It’s the meaning we ascribe to our traumatic experience, not the trauma itself, that best predicts subsequent depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.

Researchers at King’s College London and the City University of New York surveyed roughly 1,200 adults over the period of 16 years. A little more than half of them, according to court records, had been the victim of abuse, neglect, or some other form of criminal trauma prior to age 12. These adults weren’t told that they were chosen for the survey because of these records.

Without revealing that they’d seen the court documents, researchers asked their subjects about their childhoods. Some shared what they’d been through. Some didn’t. Some respondents who didn’t have any official record of abuse nevertheless said they had suffered trauma. Researchers then asked about the subjects’ current mental health: Are you depressed? Anxious?

The adults who brought up their trauma, whether substantiated by court records or not, were significantly more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety into adulthood when compared with a control group who’d suffered no trauma.

Constantly ruminating on sad things makes us sadder. Constantly interrogating how we feel is bound to make us feel worse.

Here’s the really fascinating part: 173 survey respondents who had court records proving they were abused as a child never disclosed that abuse to the researchers. And those 173 adults were no more likely than the general population to suffer depression or anxiety in their adulthood.

If we could forget the stupid conventional wisdom here, this wouldn’t be that surprising. Constantly ruminating on sad things makes us sadder. Constantly interrogating how we feel is bound to make us feel worse. You can only ask someone (including yourself!) “but are you really OK?” so many times before they start to suspect something must actually be wrong.

This is terrible news for those for whom dwelling on our traumatic experiences, be they real or imagined, has become an entire personality. Surviving trauma isn’t bad luck anymore; it’s a claim to higher social status, greater public credibility, and admiration. Being a victim is currency, which is why even people who aren’t victimized are so desperate to find some plausible way to claim they were that they’ll invent it. (I procrastinated on my deadline; it’s a trauma response!)

A caveat is warranted here: Some mental pain is real and not self-inflicted. Childhood trauma and PTSD are also, tragically, real, and can be devilishly hard to overcome. Difficulty moving on from trauma and real mental disorders are not signs of weakness or willful self-absorption.

But this study suggests that the spirit of our age—that of dwelling on our pain; of keeping a vast, detailed record of wrongs—is just really, really bad for us. Not only does it turn us inward, threatening our ability to be present with and to serve others. But it just makes us feel worse. Chalking every maladaptive or sinful behavior up to “trauma” might assuage some of our guilt, but shifting the blame also means giving up our power to change. “This isn’t your fault!” is perilously close to “You can’t do anything about this.”

Our God is so kind and compassionate to us, especially when we suffer. But because He loves us, He still expects obedience and continued sanctification from His people even after terrible things have happened to them. Paul told the Philippians that for the sake of the gospel, he meant to “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13). This is the mirror opposite of calling everything a “trauma response.” This is wisdom. This is resilience. We need to make resilience cool.

Maria Baer

Maria Baer is a freelance reporter who lives in Columbus, Ohio. She contributes regularly to Christianity Today and other outlets and co-hosts the Breakpoint podcast with The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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