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Building Resilience After Trauma: Lessons from Chile

Inspiration for those feeling burdened by the life's mishaps

  • August 02, 2016
  • By Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D.
Building Resilience After Trauma: Lessons from Chile

Picture that you live in a little coastal village in Chile. Maybe you fish or sell homemade empanadas. You can just barely feed your children and keep a roof over your head, but you make it from one day to the next. Then a traumatic event strikes. Maybe your husband comes home drunk one day and smashes everything in your house before he disappears forever, leaving you with your three children, the two nieces you also raise, and bills to pay. Or maybe it’s a tsunami that wipes away most of your home and eliminates the beach that once provided your livelihood. Or a fire rips through all the small wooden homes lined up along the beach. So your neighborhood is gone, alone with everything you once owned; and you cannot fathom where or how to start again.

These traumatic events are all too common among people who have been ground down by steady adversity across generations. I often wonder how they get by. Their resilience is an inspiration to those of us who feel burdened by the mishaps that occur in our own lives – lives blessed by plenty of almost everything--food, shelter, opportunities, education, friends, etc. I have learned life-changing lessons about coping with trauma during the twenty years I have been traveling to Chile to collaborate with the non-profit EPES (Educación Popular en Salud or Popular Education in Health). The examples of EPES shantytown health promoters and their neighbors have provided me with lessons that enhance my work with trauma victims in mental health settings in the United States, too. Here are some of those lessons:

1) Don’t Go It Alone. We become resilient when we break through our isolation and involve ourselves in our communities. During Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, Chileans banded together in their shantytowns and each contributed whatever food they had into a large cauldron to make a stew that was shared by all. This olla comun (common pot) helped stretch meager sustenance. 

More importantly, it also enhanced a sense of common purpose. The collective meals created a space where people could discuss their shared circumstances and picture a better future. In its urgent work assisting communities that suffered the effects of recent tsunamis and earthquakes plus its everyday work addressing health problems such as cholera, child sexual abuse, and teen pregnancy, EPES creates opportunities to bring people (especially women) together to diagnose their common obstacles and create collective solutions. We can learn from this. Trauma victims gain strength from each other.

2) Create Order From Chaos. After trauma, one’s world is upside-down. If your community has been smashed to pieces by a tsunami that followed an earthquake, as happened in 2015 in the small seaside town of Tongoy, Chile, then the chaos is visible in the form of boat timbers scattered inland and empty stretches of beach where houses once stood. But if the trauma is relational and its main effects are internal—such as the suffering caused by interpersonal abuse--the chaos may be invisible to others. Although hidden, the effects of interpersonal trauma are still acutely felt in the form of lost sleep, changes in eating, and a radical new feeling of vulnerability. A schedule, including regular meal and bedtimes, provides security for the trauma victim. 

Ordering one’s space also helps. Trauma often blocks a person’s safe return home—whether that trauma is a mudslide or domestic violence. A schedule and a tidy physical space provide safety for trauma victims to sort through their range of feelings, memories, and fears. After the 2010 earthquake in Southern Chile, EPES worked with Mercy Corps to provide children with "comfort kits" --backpacks with stuffed animals, flashlights, toothbrushes and toothpaste, pens, pencils, and workbooks. They also provided peer groups with organized activities where children could process their experiences and feelings.

3) Nurture Hope. In the immediate aftermath of trauma, victims have a foreshortened view of the future. They typically experience a whirlwind of emotions (or numbing) and have trouble believing that they will ever feel normal again. They find themselves unable to make plans. Speaking with others who have survived similar events inspires victims to envision a brighter future for themselves, too.

4) Commit for the Long Term. Unlike many development or disaster relief organizations that parachute into crises and depart equally abruptly when the immediate wounds are bandaged, EPES works within communities for the long term. Over thirty years, now, and they’re still going strong. EPES has found that it takes this long to help communities and individuals assess their situation, devise solutions, band together with others, and learn how to work effectively to demand change. Personal and community recovery takes time.

5) Reclaim Dignity through Helping Others. Typically, traumatic events are humiliating. Whether those traumas inflict damage on our bodies or our psyches, trauma victims typically feel less worthy than they did previously. As they recover their composure and their lives, victims become survivors and some, in turn, reach out to help others. Providing a hand to others in similar conditions can help survivors begin to think of themselves as resources with knowledge and skills. In other words, they gain a deepened sense of their own value. EPES builds grassroots leaders for the future from today’s survivors of trauma.

6) Art Heals. Chilean community members work together on murals that declare the community's rejection of violence or celebration of their achievements. They also create plays that illustrate health dilemmas and sew arpilleras that tell their communities' stories. Trauma survivors the world over benefit from creating projects related to their experiences--whether through painting, writing, acting, singing, dancing, or something else. These activities do not have to be called "art therapy" to be therapeutic.

My life has been enriched immeasurably through my work in Chile, where I have seen EPES build resilience in shattered individuals and communities. I take these lessons with me and make use of them, whether I am working with survivors of interpersonal or sexual violence, or survivors of other traumas. Don’t go it alone. Create order out of the chaos. Nurture hope. Commit for the long term because recovery takes time. And reclaim your dignity through helping others. Wise advice whatever the trauma, wherever one lives.

If you would like to learn more about the work of EPES or make a donation to an organization that truly transforms people's lives, join me in supporting EPES through their U.S. counterpart, Action for Health in the Americas.

Editor's Notes: Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Massachusetts and Author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. Photo credit: Educación Popular en Salud.