TEDxYYC – Dr. Megan McElheran – Trauma Change Resilience

TEDxYYC – Dr. Megan McElheran – Trauma Change Resilience

Translator: Robert Tucker
Reviewer: Capa Girl I am a clinical psychologist and
my specialty is in the field of trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I spend my days
listening to people’s stories about the horrors they have experienced
and attempt to support them in their efforts to recover
from these events. I’m often asked by people
how I can do this work, the prevailing assumption tending to be that the work of listening to trauma
would in itself be traumatic. I no doubt that started from
this position about 15 years ago, when I started work in this realm. My first job in the industry
involved working with teenage girls who were involved in
the sex trade in some way. And I entered this position
expecting to be horrified by the work and the stories I would hear. The reality is that I often was and stunned by the atrocities
I would hear that had been committed. But that wasn’t
the preeminent impression that formed during my tenure at the organization
and it hasn’t been what stayed with me through the years since
I’ve developed my skill in this field. What struck me most then,
that has endured, is the drive
to not only survive, but thrive, I have witnessed in the clients
with whom I worked. My expectation was that the clientele
with whom I worked would have been damaged beyond repair and broken by the experiences
they had endured in their young lives. That this wasn’t the case gave me pause and my reflections on
why this expectation was not met has influenced my work
and reflections in this area ever since and continues in the work I do today. My job these days has me working
in government health care with soldiers, veterans
and RCMP officers, who have been exposed to traumatic events
secondary to their service. The clients who visit our clinic
range in age from young soldiers who have recently
deployed and returned from Afghanistan to elderly folks who served in Korea
and World War II, not to mention the RCMP officers who have served and protected
this country from sea to sea. I also spend time
in a private setting seeing civilians who have experienced a range
of troubling and traumatic events, and I hope to share with you today some of the things
I’ve learned in this work, having come to understand certain
significant things about human nature and the human experience in helping those
to whom the unthinkable has happened. So I’ll start today by discussing
the nature of trauma and its effects. One of the things I wrestled with
in creating this talk was how much to emphasize
one aspect of my work over another. And in the debate I had with myself
I decided to focus on that which is relevant to the collective rather than potentially to
a more narrow subgroup. And my decision to do so was motivated
by an important piece of knowledge I have gathered in this work, and
that is, that trauma is a great equalizer. It cuts across socioeconomic strata,
it doesn’t care about gender, or ethnicity, religion or class;
no one is immune to the possibility of experiencing something
horrific or shattering. And while that is potentially
a sobering thought, I think awareness of this fact
can be liberating if one can allow oneself
to accept it and its significance — and I’ll speak more to that point
in just a moment. Before doing so,
I’d like to briefly outline some of the things
I’ve learned about trauma and its effects, and will begin to do so
by describing a scene to you, to set the stage for the ideas
I’d like to convey. So imagine if you will a father,
he’s middle-aged, of middle-income, and like many fathers
living in the world today he has to work away from his
family for stretches of time as he makes more money working
in remote communities than he could in the town
in which they live. The particular camp in which he stays
while working away has an on-site fitness facility. And so on this particular
Saturday afternoon he is just stepping outside to return
to his room after finishing a work out and he begins to notice
that the people he passes are giving him what he perceives are strange looks. Initially he brushes this off,
admonishing himself for being paranoid, and then he hears his name
called over the camp paging system with a request that he present
to the administration office. His heart begins to race,
he begins to sweat, a feeling of dread
begins to overtake him. He cannot explain
why this reaction is occurring, he only knows that he believes
something awful is about to happen. And it turns out he was right. On presenting to the administration office
he is informed by the supervisor on duty that there has been an accident. His wife and children were on
a road trip north to visit family and their vehicle was struck. His wife and
youngest two children survived, and his eldest did not. Trauma has the effect of organizing
the lives of trauma survivors into life pre-trauma
and life post-trauma. Life post-trauma involves knowing things that perhaps before were not known at all or only minimally known or acknowledged. Life post-trauma means
having come into contact with the knowledge of certain things,
like brutality, that once having contacted or experience
can no longer be ignored or denied. The experience I just described
was equivalent to a tectonic shift for the individual to whom it occurred. If the car crash hadn’t occurred,
that Saturday afternoon would have faded into irrelevancy with all of the other Saturday afternoons
that had come before. In the face of having had this accident and having to contend with
the devastation that occurred, life for this person was reorganized
into life before that Saturday afternoon and everything that has occurred since. And what commonly begins
to happen to people, if left to recover from
this type of event on their own, is that they understandably
try to create distance between themselves and
the experience of the events. To experience something like I described, is to come into contact with unparalleled
psychological and emotional pain, and much like pulling away
from a burner on the stove, the impulse is to get away
from that source of the pain. Unfortunately, however, separating
ourselves from our internal experience is not as cut-and-dried as
pulling away from a burner on the stove. And what starts to happen to people,
as they attempt to divorce themselves from emotional pain,
is profound alienation, from themselves, their thoughts
and feelings, and from others. And predictably when self and other
alienation occurs, symptoms develop. Mood states shift,
pervasive avoidance develops and quality of life plummets,
emotional numbing occurs. Human beings
are intrinsically social creatures, and being deprived of emotional contact
and connection with self and other, is life-threatening and it’s important
to note the viciousness of this cycle. The urge to pull away and avoid is
typically driven by the enormity of pain experienced by the individual
who has been traumatized. And the pulling away is usually employed
to prevent further pain from occurring, but the process of becoming estranged
from oneself and from others actually creates more
of the pain and disillusionment that was being avoided in the first place. And on the cycle continues. And to speak to this point
in a slightly different way, trauma like that which can occur
on a field of battle or the experience of
a sexual assault or a violent crime, fundamentally involves disconnection. What people are forced to wrestle with
in the aftermath of a traumatic event, is how to reconstruct
a life and a world view, when what used to be there
has been shattered. Following trauma,
the ability to take for granted what was once was so easily assumed,
is usually lost. One of the most critical assumptions
that is often lost is around control, and when people develop PTSD
following exposure to trauma, there will inevitably be dysfunctional
attempts to reassert a sense of control, which in reality
perpetuates the problem. In my work,
by the time people present for treatment, there is typically profound disconnection
and withdrawal that has occurred. It is typically the norm,
that in an attempt to manage
the painful thoughts and feelings, that are left
in the wake of a traumatic event, people will have narrowed
the range of their existence. This frequently means
that people rarely leave the house, they will have often lost contact
with friends, and sometimes even
all of their family members; the thinking being,
if I control my world in this way, I will be physically and emotionally safe.
What happens though is that the outside world
takes on a property of being extremely
dangerous and out of control. And this fosters additional
disconnection and retreat, further strengthening that pattern of pain
and alienation I mentioned a moment ago. The message I’d like you to take away
from what I’ve just presented, is that the urge to pull away
from pain is instinctual; and is what is referred to
as a normal reaction to abnormal events. And in understanding what is normative
or predictable following trauma, the stage is set to explore what becomes
necessary in the process of recovery. As far as I’ve observed, the antidote
to the struggle I’ve described rests with re-engagement. My work with people involves helping them
to begin to take steps to re-engage, with themselves and the internal world
of thoughts and feelings and with those around them, and it is in this process of re-engagement
that healing starts to occur. And just a note or two
on how I’ve seen this recovery occur. What I’ve experienced in my work
is that there is incredible curative power in our relationships and in our ability
to attach and connect with each other. The impact of relationships on healing
has been researched extensively and my anecdotal experience
has been supported in research studies time and again. What this means is, that in examining
how it is that people get better, it is not the application
of anyone specific technique that seems to make the difference, rather healing happens in the context
of a connection with another human being, when qualities of safety, empathy
and genuine understanding are present. In fact therapy will not be successful, regardless of the expertise
of the clinician in delivering any one intervention, if the therapeutic relationship
is not present. So what the evidence suggests then,
is that people can endure and recover from
the most horrific of experiences, provided they have even one person
whom they can attach to and connect with on an emotional level. And while crucially important
to the world of therapy, this remains a life lesson to me and a guiding principle about
how I believe we should walk through life. The capacity for people to endure
and remain resilient to the most horrific experiences, like torture or violent assault
or the grief of losing a child, is mitigated by the human connections
they have at the time of such events and in their aftermath. So how does this all relate
to the theme of today’s event and how does this apply to communities
at large and the individuals living in them? I have a few takeaway lessons
I’ve gleaned from my work I keep on hand I’d like to now share with you
in the hopes that they resonate. One of these is,
that depending on the circumstances, anyone is capable of anything. I think this is a crucial piece
of knowledge to hold if there is true intention to engage
emphatically with our fellows. It is easy to cast off those who
experience or perpetrate horrific things as being unlike us
or different in some way. And my worry is that
if we operate from that standpoint, we will always be operating from
a place of disconnection and isolation. Empathy entails putting oneself
in the shoes of another, and I think it’s important
that we all challenge ourselves to cultivate this ability, as given
the right circumstances or the right conditions
we are all capable of anything. A second takeaway lesson is
the importance of struggle and pain to the development of character. I often describe the process of recovery
I observe in my clients as transformational,
and equivalent in many ways to the evolution
of caterpillar into butterfly. It is the struggle to re-emerge that is
crucial in the process of transformation; without the struggle
the new entity will not appear. And this highlights to me the importance of struggle and difficulty
in the development of character, and how oftentimes
something more meaningful and potentially beautiful
can be obtained if achieving it involves
challenge and struggle. I believe there’s a great cost to the character of human beings
if things are achieved too easily. And to carry this point out
somewhat further, I think it’s important
for individuals and communities to continually examine
the beliefs that are collectively held. In the last century western cultures
appear to be have more and more adopted what has been referred
to as “the happiness myth”. The idea inherent in this myth is that if we are not happy
all the time, something is wrong. And if this is the belief you can
imagine the terrible dilemma faced by anyone
who goes through a difficult time or who endures a traumatic event. The message inherent in this is that if you are not happy
there is something wrong with you, and if we accept
this belief or myth out of hand without examining its implications, we’re at significant risk of fostering
the self and other alienation I referred to a moment ago. The belief that happiness or satisfaction
must always be present, and if it is not, that says
something negative about ourselves, will encourage us to deny or avoid
any internal experience that runs counter and this places individuals
and communities at much greater risk for suffering
if and when a traumatic event comes along. My wish is that
on individual and community levels, we would all strive more and more
for whole integration, such that our ability to experience
fear or sadness or uncertainty can be welcomed as much as
our ability to experience happiness, pride or satisfaction. If, on a day-to-day basis, we as individuals and as members
participating in our communities are better able to operate from a position where all experience is valued,
I think we will be healthier, and better able to address
the challenges in our lives from a place of
being willing and able to have an experience
whatever those challenges should entail. I’ll leave you with
one of the most difficult lessons I’ve taken away from my work thus far, and that is,
we do not have control over everything, bad things do happen to good people, and there’s lots that happens
in our societies that isn’t fair. And it’s a challenge sometimes
to have to hold that knowledge and choose to participate
in this world all the same. But as I presented, the cost of avoiding or denying this fact
is too high, in my opinion, for the potential such denial can have on our connections to ourselves
and to each other. Thank you very much
for letting me speak to you today. (Applause)


  1. That's the best talk i have seen on the topic. It's empirical and not some random chatter, it's very logically constructed and instructing to why empathy (emotional or cognitive), even though potentially dangerous for us is still more beneficial to us as a species than not having it. It gives an explanation to why we ate ever able to Adapt ane Thrive in this world where trauma is inevitable and commonplace. It gives an explanation to why we need to embrace suffering instead of hiding from it in an effort to be constantly happy.. Watch it

  2. Best trauma recovery video I have ever seen is the Trauma Trap on NewLife TV. Unfortunately it cost $9 a month subscription but it was life changing. For many who have been abused they have the false belief that something is inherently wrong with them and this they we're abused. According to this video all healing takes place because of a friend or relative they can depend on. That helps but it can not fix the negative lies a person of trauma believes in themselves.

  3. Amazing talk… puts to shame all these trite click bait TED talks with their “happiness hack lists”

    mind blown

    I’m off work with PTSD and the last 3 years of my life have followed the EXACT pattern you have just listed. If not for the ONE remaining close friend who refused to let me slowly disappear and recently finding a seniors group to volunteer at once per week to make me leave the house… those connections are what stopped me from just sneaking away in fear and shame, permanently.
    I dread going back to work though. They have not been at all supportive – PTSD is a longstanding problem in my job that remains unaddressed – they just cover up for liability, then kick you while you’re down in the hopes they can’t force you to quit instead of asserting your rights or engaging the union for accommodation. If you do that… the retaliation begins. The traumatized employee never wins.

  4. Wow – what an amazing speech! I would love to see her in a more professional production than the one she was provided with back at the time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *