What Makes a Resilient Mind

Published on NOVA Next (PBS online) 1/14/2015

By Karen D. Brown

Standing at a podium in a Philadelphia hotel, Amanda Lindhout—a poised, elegant woman in her early 30s—told a harrowing story.

She survived a violent childhood and adolescence in Canada with an alcoholic and abusive stepfather, relying on her own grit and imagination to get through. After high school, she worked as a cocktail waitress and pored wistfully over exotic photos in National Geographic magazines. She eventually tucked away enough money to travel and become a freelance foreign correspondent.

Then in 2008, she was kidnapped while reporting in Somalia and held captive for more than a year, subjected to torture, hunger, and rape.

“I had lost everything,” she told the rapt room. “I had lost even the things you thought couldn’t be taken away from you. My own name. The sky over my head. Laughter. Light. And I never knew if I could make it through the day. So I would break it down and ask myself, ‘Can I get through the next minute?’ ”

She was eventually released after family members scrounged their every resource to raise the ransom her captors demanded.

When something happens to you that extreme, you could begin to fray at the edges, descending into depression, perhaps substance abuse, or post-traumatic stress. Or you could emerge relatively intact, like Lindhout seems to have done, able to speak articulately in front of hundreds of academics and journalists at the 2013 conference of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, which had invited her as keynote speaker. The theme that year was “Resilience.”

“No matter how many times in captivity I suffered abuse, it never got easier, but to survive in there, I had to learn how to crawl out of this dark space in my own mind,” she said. “I began to nurture something inside myself, a tiny seed of compassion inside of me.”

Lindhout’s case is not scientifically unique. There are hundreds, thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have gone through their own version of hell—some of them resilient, some not. But in this room of psychologists and neuroscientists, Lindhout was a warm-blooded reminder why the work they do matters.

Resilience as a branch of trauma studies has grown rapidly in the last few decades, as no shortage of mass traumas, from genocides to war to mass shootings, have raised questions about the psychological fortitude of individuals and populations. That’s in addition to the quieter trauma—domestic abuse, illness, sexual violence—that happens outside the public’s view.

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