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  • Writer's pictureErika Bugbee, M.A.

Trauma vs The Human Spirit: We’re All Born with the Drive to Survive

Today I’m sharing something I wrote for a young client that’s in the hospital right now.

He’s been terrorized by a recent and very severe traumatic event.

Unable to have a phone or Zoom call, I decided to write something to him.

I share it here because after reading it, I realized almost every client I see, young and old,

struggles in exactly the same ways as this young guy, even though everyone’s story is unique.

Life events of any size can create the very same feelings and affects as trauma, both in size and strength.

Having a relationship fall apart, dealing with chronic pain, a medical condition or a mental health issue, getting lost in life, in your career, or as a parent.

It’s not just the life-threatening events that can feel like trauma. Fear and insecurity feels just as big to someone with a panic attack in a livingroom in upstate New York as someone in physical danger in a third-world country.

So there are Traumas with a Big T and traumas with a small t.

And if you look at what goes on inside the human mind in the wake of both, they can feel

equally-threatening, disturbing, and disorienting.

What everyone has in common is that people often try to find answers or make some

sense out of the bad things that happen in their lives. They all question themselves, life, or God. Look for a reason, an answer, or some meaning.

While it’s common, that type of searching often creates a ripple effect on our well-being that has the potential to destabilize us far more than the event itself.

We can use our free-will to blame, regret, question, or fester about the things that happen to us.

But we can also use our free will to find a new feeling in the wake of life’s tragedies. We can

look for feelings of connection, humility, gratitude, faith, or quiet. We can come to peace with not having answers yet.

That’s where the source of stability and recovery exists. There’s a universal intelligence we

all have access to that provides the healing power and the potential for well-being no

matter what happens in the secular world.

That’s where I’m pointing this young client.

And because what I’m pointing to is innate and lives in all of us, it’s something anyone at any age, in any country, can recognize and understand.

I hope it’s helpful. Here goes:

It Gets Better

Sometimes really horrible and traumatic things happen to people, things that they don’t deserve.

Things that are wrong, unfair, or unspeakable.

Things they weren’t prepared for at all. And they feel like they have no way of handling it.

But in the 22 years I’ve been helping people that have been through trauma, they’ve all made it through. And they’ve shared with me what helped them. I’ll share that with you here.

When something traumatic happens to you, your mind wants to know why it happened, why it happened to you and not somebody else, if you did something to make it happen. If you

could’ve avoided it, if you’re being punished, if it happened because you’re a bad person, if life singled you out.

I had a 13-year-old client that was attacked by a car full of kids in their 20’s. He spent 6 months in the hospital and had to learn to walk and talk again, and his face is full of scars now. It was a random attack.

I’ve worked with two groups of orphaned teens from Israel who lost their families to violence on the Gaza Strip. Some of them were there and saw it happen. Most of them still live in violent, scary situations now. Nobody knows why things happen like that, or why those things happened to them and not someone else.

But what helped all of those clients was that at some point, in their own way, they stopped

asking why and focused on healing, moving forward, and surviving today. Getting through each moment, and each day. It wasn’t easy, but every month, every year, it got a little easier.

It gets better.

Asking Why: Sometimes We Have No Answers

For those Israeli teens, and the 13-year-old that was attacked, their minds wanted to make

meaning out of what happened, to ask why it happened, why it happened to them. It wants to question, blame, feel shame, doubt, or feel betrayed by life.

But sometimes we don’t get to know why. And they were able to heal without knowing why.

They all said at some point that in order to heal and recover, and see what to do next, how to

move forward, they had to let go of asking why, let go of anger, and focus on surviving each


It took time for each of them to be ready to let go like that, but for each of them, that day came.

And healing happened for each and every one of them. Because like the rest of nature, we’re

built to adapt and survive. It’s how we’re wired.

For Trauma Survivors, Every Story is Different, But There’s Something they ALL Share

My clients with trauma all say the same thing: It feels like we have to get through it by ourselves because the people around us don’t really know what it’s like.

And even if we can find the words to explain it, words are never really big enough to capture

how we really feel.

So it can feel lonely and scary, and too much to handle sometimes.

And yet for each of them, life provided help by showing them other people that went through their own trauma and survived.

Each story is different, like the examples above.

But the experience of suddenly having a very severe and extreme thing happen to you, and

feeling alone and in a free-fall, is something they all share. Just knowing there are other people out there that go through things that are a similar size can be comforting, even if you don’t know those people.

And as each of my clients got older, they found other people that went through situations that were very similar to their own.

What’s comforting about knowing there are other trauma survivors throughout the world, and throughout history?

You may feel alone, because that’s a trick trauma can play on your mind.

But here’s the truth: you’re not alone at all.

If you look around, trauma is everywhere, on news channels, in music, in books, in history.

And more importantly, you may feel weak or unable to survive, but that’s another trick of the

mind. The human mind is, by nature, resilient and strong. In your lifetime, you’ll come across

stories of people who survived trauma.

In fact, examples of people surviving, adapting, and stabilizing after trauma is around you every day. In your town, on your block, probably in your own house or family.

Get interested in those stories of survival and strength. How it shows up in other people, how it’s shown up in you at certain times in life. That will give you hope and faith in the human spirit.

Whether you feel it or not, and whether you know it or not, you’re connected to the same source of strength and resilience as the rest of the human race.

Survival is in all of nature. Survival is in your biology.

Trauma Will Play Tricks on Your Mind

When someone’s in the wake of a trauma, their mind will play tricks on them.

It happens most when their mood states are low or agitated. In their low moods, the mind of a trauma patient will tell them they can’t survive, they don’t want to survive, it’s not worth it, it’s too much for them.

But for everyone, including trauma survivors, our truth is distorted as our moods get low. The

lower our moods, the less truth there is in our reality. When we’re low, we feel weak, incapable, or hopeless.

That’s because our outlook on life looks dark and hopeless when we’re upset or low.

But moods go up and down like the rest of nature, all day and all week. Like the weather. It

changes all day all by itself. So bad weather comes in, hangs around for a while, and pretty

soon it will change and clear up.

For the human mind, and our well-being and resilience, that means that we go from being

hopeless, angry or terrified, to more calm, quiet, stable, open, or focused on other things, like an activity, a meal, a conversation.

Sometimes trauma patients will feel strong positive feelings, maybe just for a fleeting moment, like feeling love or appreciation for someone, or reassured by something someone says, but often the feelings are smaller and harder to notice, like you’re not as upset or scared as you were before.

So you have to look for them. They’re there, and they’re evidence that you’re connected to a

universal intelligence.

You’re anchored to a system that naturally and automatically helps your emotional and mental state stabilize every time it gets destabilized.

Noticing that up and down system really helps trauma patients.

It also helps trauma survivors to notice that reality always appears worse when our emotional or mood states are low or agitated. So it makes sense to be a bit cautious about how your life and future look to you when you’re upset.

As trauma survivors learn to ride out their lows (their ‘bad weather’) more gracefully, they

engage their minds less when they’re feeling scared or low.

And when their minds are more calm, neutral, or quiet, the lows pass through more easily and destabilize us less.

When people notice themselves in a more calm and neutral state, they’ll also notice they have better coping mechanisms, more ideas about what to do today to survive the situation, and more hope.

Hope, for my trauma clients, is the lifeline that allows people, no matter how young or seemingly unprepared, to survive anything.

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