The impacts of the floods on individuals and communities, what this means for resilience and how it relates to trauma.

The danger of the expectation of resilience. What resilience is and what it isn't. How trauma is accumulative and lives in our bodies at a cellular level.
flooding, emotional resilience, trauma

Resilience is one of those ‘things’ that we are all expected to have an unlimited supply of. What is this ‘resilience’ that people speak of? 

Recently, it has been everywhere, we are told that we can get through it, we know how to struggle, we have been through it before. I call BS! – I believe this minimises our experience and makes us push these uncomfortable feelings down into our psyche. This can shame us, particularly when we aren’t actually coping very well!

I have been disappointed that the narrative about the recent floods relates to people’s historical experience and how they have survived the 2011 floods and know how to get through this one and that we are resilient. Again, I ask what does that mean and how do we know that is the case? What is it like for those people who are told they are resilient but do not know if they are? I think this is dangerous to our sense of self. 

I wonder if it is what people say when they feel uncomfortable with suffering? Because people either cannot relate to the feeling or cannot bear to think what that suffering might be like. It is like a band-aid for the unaffected. It is used to make bad news more palatable. 

Material has resilance. We can define the resilience of the material to be the amount of energy the material can absorb and still return to its original state. So therefore resilience in the context of emotional reflex is nonsense. Because we grow through our experience, we never return to our original state. 

I was affected by the floods. Not because my house was flooded, although it was close. I was affected emotionally, spiritually and existentially. I did not feel resilient, I felt sad, overwhelmed, confused, angry, grief and I was in shock. 

I believe the people who lost their homes, separated from loved ones, wrestling with the instability and the prolific anger of mother nature also did not feel resilient. I believe they were surviving because there wasn’t a choice. 

Trauma is a natural response to not knowing whether or not you will survive a perceived threat. The brain and body go into overdrive, like an autopilot just to move past an experience that feels intolerable. Like, it isn’t even real. 

The last few years have taken so much from us, it has been relentless for our nation. From the fires, covid, enforced lockdowns, separation from loved ones, mandates, war and now the floods. We have all faced layers of trauma as a nation, a community and as individuals. Do I think we are resilient as a result of this? I don’t know. I think we have learnt to widen our window of tolerance. However, I don’t think we have even started to process the enormity of the impacts. First, in order to process something challenging or painful you need to feel safe. You cannot widen your window of tolerance if you feel unsafe. 

Therefore, it is going to take time, for people affected to assemble some level of normalcy, whether that is about housing, structure, reconnection. Knowing people care will help a lot, knowing that people are not forgotten is essential to reduce impacts. 

I found during the floods my instinct drove me to connect. I reached out to friends asking if they are okay, asking if they want to talk. I sent messages to my clients asking them if they were feeling safe? I connected more to my neighbours than I have before in order so we could take a collective response to initiate further flood defence. In the instant, I listened to my instinct and connected to others I felt more relaxed. I have witnessed people doing similar in places that were inundated with water. Communities pull together and forge teams to locate the isolated and connect to gather supplies. What a wonderful example of the best of humanity. 

However, let’s reflect on this so-called resilience. See, even this collective response of the community is not going to mitigate the pain and fear that these individuals have experienced. You can’t unknow what you know, right! 

Trauma is accumulative, it doesn’t stand on its own. Traumas build on each other and do not need to have a direct correlation with each other for the impacts to be felt. A trauma impact brought on by a sexual assault/toxic relationship can be reignited if someone loses their house to an environmental disaster. A resolved eating disorder can reestablish itself when your income is suddenly cut off, Why? Because, the body remembers and trauma is stored at a cellular level, the body can recall the feeling of trauma wherever it comes from. Trauma is a feeling of loss of control. It is a loss of safety within the body. If this repeats then a person’s core beliefs change. The expectation of life being safe becomes more delicate, less tangible. Boundaries have been invaded. The impacts accelerate, hypervigilance is raised, sleeplessness through fear or nightmares, survival strategies become unhealthy possibly through self-medication, sense of self is lost. 

So, imagine for those who have been impacted by the floods what their sense of survival is going to feel like if they are carrying unresolved trauma from their past. Not resilient, I imagine. Not ok! 

The presumption of resilience is to normalise something, to make it something that we put up with. What this really means is ‘put up with it’, ‘shut it down, ‘make it go away’, and pretend. Do these feel like familiar things we tell ourselves when the world has moved on? When the focus is not on our healing or we are not given a safe space to process what is going on inside ourselves? 

Locating resilience within is about finding flexibility and elasticity. I am all about it! This is about being able to flex with the highs and lows of life. You change shape as a result but it is okay because you have a secure base to return to when ready. However, this takes time, a long time. You need to make meaning out of the experience, you need to give yourself the space to feel the pain that you couldn’t access when you were experiencing the threat, whether that was environmental, physical, psychological etc. You need to be given the opportunity to re-narrate your story, to see yourself as a survivor, as someone powerful to rise above a dominant experience but only if you have permitted yourself to feel what it is like to feel like a vulnerable person, safely and kindly. We can not negate emotional pain, but we can learn to understand and accept it and that helps reduce the overwhelm that it brings. 

I have been speaking with people who have been impacted by trauma and their wisdom speaks to me. They say it is ‘not now that a person feels the pain or needs the help to process what has happened’. Right now, people will be focusing on basic needs, food, clothing, housing, safety. This is survival mode. It will be afterwards, maybe when they feel safe or rehoused again. Maybe once the mud is dry and the rivers look beautiful and non-threatening again, maybe that is when people will need to speak and connect to the real fear they felt and now lives within them.  

I reflect on this and hear the echo of this narrative play out often in the therapy space. Sometimes, people need time to adjust to their new sense of self before reaching out to others to address the actual impacts of boundary invasion. 

When that day comes, I will be ready. I will help you to reconnect and feel safe within your body. I will be ready to hold the stories, unpack your impacts and listen without interruption and I will not reflect on your resilience until you are ready to hear your story of survival. 

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