How do we move forward from trauma?

In the summer of 2014, the Seattle Pacific University community suffered the unthinkable — a campus shooting in which one student was killed and several others wounded. In the aftermath, the Department of Clinical Psychology, now chaired by Professor of Clinical Psychology Amy Mezulis, mobilized to provide mental health care for faculty, staff, and students.

It was an odd intersection in Mezulis’ life, personally and professionally. “It’s a close-knit community, and we were all affected by the tragedy,” Mezulis said. “At the same time, I have a professional background in research around post-traumatic stress disorder.”

A question arose in her mind: Can something helpful come from this?

Mezulis, along with her department colleagues and SPU graduate students, designed a study that would explore questions of resilience in the wake of traumatic events. Four months after the shooting, SPU community members were invited to participate in a survey of targeted questions about their experience.

While most individuals are able to emotionally come to terms with trauma and move forward, Mezulis wanted to examine those who became stuck in a state of post-traumatic stress, as well as those who were able to move from stress to post-traumatic growth. How and why were they able to do so?

One answer lies in two kinds of rumination — focused attention on a stressful event. It’s important to acknowledge that trauma occurred, but it’s also critical to know how the brain interprets that trauma.

Traumatized individuals commonly suffer intrusive rumination, Mezulis said. Unwanted thoughts about the traumatic event return repeatedly and unexpectedly. But there’s a second kind of rumination that holds the key to healing: deliberate rumination, or intentional ways of processing the trauma.

In deliberate rumination, a traumatized person allows himself or herself to make meaning of a traumatic event: What does it mean in my life? What did I learn from it? How has it changed me?

“Practicing gratitude doesn’t minimize or negate what happened, but it’s the most protective thing someone can do for their mental health.”

“It’s instinctive for us to push away thoughts about traumas we’ve experienced,” Mezulis said. “But when we avoid things we need to process, the brain has a way of sending them back to us in the form of intrusive thoughts. Ironically, dedicating time to thinking about a traumatic event — its meaning and its effect — helps us respond better.” 

In the study, people experiencing post-traumatic growth reported that they were able to see beauty in the world that they hadn’t noticed before. They cherished their relationships. They developed a renewed sense of purpose.

While there’s a concentrated focus in society on how tragedy can be prevented, traumas large and small are part of our lives as humans, Mezulis said. The next frontier of study is what we can do ahead of time to build resilience, and what we can do afterward to cope. What are the daily practices that all of us — not only the naturally resilient — can cultivate to build a healthy foundation that can see us through trauma?

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According to the data, our best weapon seems to be gratitude. “Practicing gratitude doesn’t minimize or negate what happened,” Mezulis said, “but it’s the most protective thing someone can do for their mental health.” If the brain already has experience looking for the positive before a trauma occurs, we won’t be trying to learn this new skill in the middle of heavy stress.

Seattle Pacific’s campus community was widely praised for its rapid response to the tragedy. “We had counseling services, a memorial service, a prayer vigil, therapy dogs,” Mezulis said. “And the study showed that the more resources people utilized, the more they moved from post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic growth.”

Mezulis sees hope in the data. “Some stress symptoms will resolve themselves naturally over time,” she said, “but there are things we can do to care for ourselves.” Seek all the resources you can: counseling, close relationships, self-care, daily gratitude. Look for helpers. And spend some time ruminating on your experience to leverage a horrific experience into one of growth.

Amy Mezulis PhD is professor and chair of clinical psychology at SPU. Her National Institutes of Health-funded research focuses on identifying biological and psychological pathways to adolescent-onset disorders of emotion regulation such as depression and self-injury. She also supervises doctoral trainees and teaches courses in adolescent development, cognitive-behavioral therapy, diagnosis, and assessment.

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