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How to bounce back from trauma

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2013 - Spring


Two psychiatrists explore why some people are better able to endure trauma than others.

Rear Admiral Robert Shumaker survived eight years in North Vietnamese prisons by helping to develop a secret communication lifeline among his fellow prisoners. While most people undergo some form of trauma during their lifetime—though not always as harrowing as Shumaker’s—some bounce back more easily than others.

For 20 years, Steven M. Southwick, M.D., and Dennis S. Charney, M.D., HS ’81, have been studying the biology and psychology of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. In their book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Southwick, the Glenn H. Greenberg Professor of Psychiatry and professor in the Child Study Center; and Charney, a former member of the Yale faculty who is now the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, explore how some people are better able to cope with stress.

The authors interviewed Vietnam-era POWs, Special Forces instructors, and civilians who have led productive lives after severe psychological trauma. “... the resilient people we interviewed,” they write, “tended to use the same or similar coping strategies when confronted with high levels of stress.” The authors identify 10 resilience factors including optimism and strong social connections; delve into the scientific and genetic underpinnings of these factors; and offer practical advice on ways to foster resilience in everyday life. While acknowledging that human resilience is a complex and dynamic phenomenon, the authors maintain that people can improve their resiliency. “Ultimately, resilience is about understanding the difference between fate and freedom, and learning to take responsibility for one’s own life.”