Trauma, PTSD, and human resilience, with George Bonanno

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“When something horrific happens to us, something really undesirable, we have the capacity to regroup and move on from there,” says psychologist says George Bonanno. “And I'm increasingly convinced that this is how people find a way to resilience.” Art by Gabby Quarante.

Over the course of a lifetime, nearly everyone experiences some form of trauma. Whether it’s physical or emotional, as a victim or as a witness, an unexpected, horrific event is deeply unsettling, turning lives upside down. 

As much as we wish to avoid these events from happening, they are very much part of human existence. Indeed, at no point in history has mankind been able to avoid natural disasters, injury, war, or injustice.

“Discussions of grief go way back to the Greek stories, [with] descriptions of soldiers openly weeping in grief,” says Columbia University Professor of Clinical Psychology George A. Bonanno. “This is not a not a new thing for for human beings. But if you go back in time and look for any kind of mention of something like PTSD — lasting psychological reaction to a violent or life threatening event — there's no evidence of it.”

Bonnano argues that trauma is not nearly as common as we think, and that most of us can cope with adversity without lasting long term effects. Drawing on four decades of research, he says that, for the most part, the adverse effects of a traumatic event do not last. 

“We began to see in all of these different arenas that most people are going to be okay … people will struggle, but they'll move on,” he says.  

It’s only been in the last 50 years that doctors have considered that trauma could have a lasting impact, leading to the modern diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

“PTSD, or most of the things we consider mental disorders, are not written on your soul. They're not carved in your body like some Franz Kafka invention,” Bonanno says. “They are basically states — they're difficult states and painful states, but they're states that typically people can and do recover from.”

George Bonanno, pictured here, says that “we far too easily jump at the excuse that we are traumatized by something and we can't function.” Photo courtesy of George Bonanno.

Bonanno, author of “The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience Is Changing How We Think About PTSD,” explains that what we often interpret as PTSD are indicators of a natural process of learning how to deal with a specific situation. We can cope far more effectively if we understand how this process works: “These disorders kind of masquerade as scientific constructs, which they are not,” he says. “They don't have a scientific or even a biological basis.”

Trauma goes hand in hand with that which makes us more resilient and better able to handle traumatic stress. Bonanno says he’s counted numerous factors that have been somehow associated with resilience, and that that number keeps growing — which led him to the idea that, “it's not having key traits that makes us resilient, it's being flexible and having the capacity or the ability to respond uniquely to different events.” 

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  • George Bonanno - Author; Professor of Clinical Psychology, Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Columbia University


Andrea Brody