What Really Works for Traumatic Stress

post-traumatic growth

You’ve been there. You’ve done that. You’ve had the 18-20% positive results predicted by scientific research. But it wasn’t enough.

Plenty of ways to feel better about things. Just as many ways to actually do something. Doesn’t matter what the things are: there’s an app, or a coach, or a book, or a pill, or some new modality that both popular opinion and scientific research agree upon: this works.

If it’s working for you, great. Stop reading now and go back to whatever else you were doing.

On the other hand…

…is anyone else tired of all the noise?

Tried, true, and terrific

Post-traumatic stress and traumatic injury are a thing. The good news is that research suggests that they have been for as long as there have been human beings. The better news is that this means there are lots of ways to “deal” with them, too: modalities that support post-traumatic growth. The best news? The guidebooks are available now.

As far back as Marcus Aurelius – remember him? the Roman Emperor who presided over the final days of the Roman Empire? – and for thousands of years before his era, people have documented their struggles with trauma. Some of them – like Marcus Aurelius – have also written down how they whelt and dealt (or wheeled and dealed) with it.

What did they learn that can help us today?

The consolidated wisdom of humankind’s history is that trauma represents an opportunity to strengthen our holistic resilience. Like a muscle, if we don’t work our trauma response, it atrophies, and that’s not good.

That’s heavy. We actually need trauma to get stronger. That’s the idea behind post-traumatic growth.

Stop. Breathe. This is about to get intense. Let’s begin at the beginning.

post-traumatic growth

Fact: there are time-tested, experience-proven, durable ways to be trauma-resilient. They have worked well for thousands of years. Here are two examples, one ancient and one modern:

– Marcus Aurelius practiced Stoicism to deal with his challenges, and they were immense.

– Today’s 14th Incarnation of The Dali Lama practices Buddhism (of course), in the face of challenges that resemble those of Marcus Aurelius back in the day.

Would you take the lead of a Stoicist or Buddhist? Perhaps you should! Those two non-religious ways of being in the world offer thousands of years of anecdotal evidence in support of post-traumatic growth. They also give clear instructions on how to “do” post-traumatic growth well.

Your belief system

Let’s check in with the belief systems we all have that guide us through life. What follows isn’t meant to be critical of any belief system – after all, yours works well for you, and that’s a good thing. Instead, think of this next discussion as an opportunity to snap on one or two specialized plug-ins to your belief system.

With respect to trauma, how durable are the beliefs that guide your life?

Ask yourself, and be honest: does my belief system offer me better than 18-20% resilience in the face of trauma? On the positive side, does my belief system give me the energetic, creative, inspirational, emotional, and intellectual boost I need these days? (Those are two sides of the very same coin.)

Hypothetically, of course, would your belief system be enough for you to preside over the fall of the Roman Empire, or lead the Tibetan diaspora?

Now, remove that belief system from the conversation for a moment. Without it, could you still effectively deal with trauma and the opportunity it provides?

Lots of us ignore trauma that doesn’t happen directly to us. And, when trauma pays us a personal visit, we stuff it deep into our psychic closets so it won’t distract from “the mission.” Truly, that’s bad practice. Raised in a compassionate family where you learned to stuff our anger, fear, even sadness? Some of us connect that practice to our belief systems in ways that cause damage to our psyches – I know because I was one of those people.

Trauma hidden out of sight is still trauma, and its energy will fester until we psychically unpack it, discover the opportunity it contains, and use that opportunity for good, which also uses the unspent energy we’ve stored away. There’s a whole book about this by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, who’s an expert in traumatic recovery: “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.”

Fact: just like Marcus Aurelius and the Dali Lama, you can practice traumatic healing without compromising your belief system. Here’s how.

post-traumatic growth

Effective resilience practice

You have two basic options if you want to snap on a solid resilience practice to your durable belief system:

  1. Wait for scientific research to offer a new potential remedy, then adopt that recommendation and meld it into your practice;
  2. Stand on proven wisdom, learn the time-tested skills it teaches, and integrate those skills into your practice.

(Yes: you could do one or the other or both, I know.)

Let’s take the options in order. First, scientific research.

Scientific research

Research is practically guaranteed to offer us trauma-processing modalities with an 18-20% positive result. Even though 18-20% is enough for the regulators and investors, and therefore for us, every so often a modality comes along with an amazing 80-90% positive result.

A trauma modality with an 80-90% cure rate? Van der Kolk points out that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is one such modality, and who wouldn’t use that?

Lots of practitioners – mostly psychotherapists – are paying good money to be trained in EMDR, but the truth is that it’s very difficult to patent a modality like EMDR, which means EMDR isn’t a big money-maker for practitioners who administer it.

In addition to not being profitable, EMDR lacks sexy technology. It doesn’t use an app or virtual reality or avatars or a cadre of highly-trained specialists to get is 80-90% cure rate for trauma.

Research has yet to fully understand why EMDR works so well. Unfortunately, because it’s not patentable, there’s no financial incentive to answer the scientific questions about EMDR. The best case for a modality like EMDR is that people who need it learn to self-administer it.

If you were interested in integrating EMDR into your trauma resilience practice, it would be a good thing, right? If you could give yourself EMDR, would you? I would.

The research into EMDR does indicate that it enhances “bilateral stimulation” between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. “Bilateral stim” can be triggered by moving our eyes left and right repeatedly, or by gently tapping on either side of the head, or listening to specialized music that alternates between the left and right speaker on your headset.

Bilateral stim also happens when you play the piano or drums or any instrument where your hands alternate repeatedly. Or if you attend a symphony concert (most non-classical concerts overwhelm bilateral stim).

It also happens as we walk. In fact, that’s what the “discoverer” of EMDR was doing when they realized what was happening.

Proven wisdom

Proven wisdom now meets science: walking around is a proven way to process trauma. Why, because walking triggers bilateral stim, and when bilateral stim happens, our human systems release traumatic energy safely and reliably and with excellent physical, emotional, mental, and probably spiritual results.

Proven wisdom leads us to wonder: how do people who regularly practice bilateral stim respond to trauma? Think of the many opportunities human beings have to dial in to the power of natural bilateral stimulation. Can we use that?

Let’s look closely at proven wisdom and ask: how much proof do you need?

The major religions of the world are also thousands of years old; is traumatic resilience among believers on the upswing? Based on the thousands-of-years-old wars we still fight over whose belief system is right, or the divisions in belief systems over what their sacred texts actually mean these days, it doesn’t appear that a religious response to traumatic resilience is working well.

Traumatic injury is especially exacerbated on the battlefield. Unresolved tension between one’s belief system and one’s requirement to break things and kill people in the name of “what’s right” or of “just doing my job” is traumatic.

Has the rise of traumatic energy in the world has helped spark a contemporary interest in practicing Stoicism or Buddhism? Researchers of the teachings of compassion and acceptance are finding ways to scientifically examine the power of gratitude, for example, and it’s encouraging that we can and do produce modern evidence for the power of these practices.

As more of us simply apply proven wisdom to today’s issues, we’ve captured the imagination of scientists, who have begun to research how practices we find in the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Buddha inform post-traumatic growth.

post-traumatic growth

Best practices for post-traumatic growth

The coming wave of how-to books about post-traumatic growth will be written by scientists and psychologists. They will make fabulous claims and back them up with studies. They will present the best practices for dealing with trauma and improving resilience. Best-selling authors will give new TED talks, there will be a whole new crowd of post-traumatic growth executive coaches, and a new alphabet of letters after our names on business cards indicating certifications for experts qualified to share the new knowledge.

That’s all goodness, right?

It is until what you practice doesn’t fit the scientific orthodoxy, or is somehow invalid because you weren’t taught by a certified expert. That’s BS of the highest order. Proven wisdom is, well, proven.

If a best practice for post-traumatic growth works really well in our age even though it is obviously a direct descendant of a practice that worked for Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus or Buddha, does it matter how you learned it or who taught it to you, or if it’s called gratitude, post-traumatic growth, or tonglen? Be honest!

Does it matter to you that, thanks to research, we can now call the use of gratitude, appreciation, and compassion “evidence-based?” Buddhists have thousands of years of evidence and lifetimes of experience that survive today in best practices of compassion and acceptance. Much of this 13,000-year-old wisdom was chronicled in the books destroyed when Tibet was overrun by the Chinese. By comparison, modern science is just getting started.

What best practices will you use?

When it comes to traumatic recovery, the world needs you. Deal with your own unresolved traumatic energy, please. Not doing so could be fatal, and you’re better than that. The tools are easy to master, but they demand a lifetime of practice. Put another way, your lifetime of post-traumatic growth awaits: what skills will you practice to live that life fully?


There’s more where this came from, which means you’re not alone. Reach out here.

Ready for a deeper dive? The Musimorphic Quest, a fully-mentored online active-learning experience will immerse you in practical ways to meet life’s challenges with skills you may not realize you already have. It’s not for everybody, but you are that unique individual who really resonates with with the power of music and wants to learn to wield it with skill, give it a try. The landing page is here.


What Really Works for Traumatic Stress


Picture of Bill Protzmann

Bill Protzmann