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Psychologist and family therapist Jack Saul has worked with survivors of terrorist attacks, wars, torture, and natural disaster. He has studied the effects of trauma on relationships, families, and communities as well as the process of collective recovery and resilience. As founding director of the International Trauma Studies Program and the refugee resource center REFUGE, Saul has developed numerous initiatives that incorporate art and storytelling into treatment.
Jewish survivors of the Holocaust offer a powerful case study. They created communal activities to rebuild their lives and find new purpose. They formed peer support networks, established rituals of mourning, and started archives to document their experiences. In some cases, they took their children back to the cities and towns they grew up in to place their stories of suffering within the context of the history of the Jewish people. When groups develop strategies like these for communal resilience, it enhances the coping capacity of all the members.
We did a theater project in New York that told the story of torture survivors and refugees from the Chilean Pinochet regime. We invited the actual survivors to meet with the theater group. Although they were unlikely to go to individual therapy, they were interested in watching a performance about their experience.
Seeing their stories represented artistically gave them a way to acknowledge what they’d been through and engage in conversation about it. Some even talked to their children about their ordeals for the first time. These performances are not therapy, but they can play a role in healing.
For many survivors of political violence, it’s not enough to talk about your experience in the privacy of a therapist’s office. You may want to help others understand what you’ve been through, and you may feel a sense of responsibility for keeping alive the memory of those who didn’t survive. If that’s how you feel, telling your story in public spaces can be a very effective form of healing.
These events are extremely stressful. But there are some practical things you can do to manage your stress. Get physical exercise and practice relaxation and mindfulness techniques, like yoga. These will help you cope on a day-to-day basis.
It’s also important to maintain your relationships. This can be challenging, because trauma often disrupts them, but support from others helps you be more resilient. Do what you can to repair or strengthen relationships in your family and community.
The most important thing you can do for a loved one who has experienced trauma is be there for them. Make sure they know they have your support. Different people will need different things, so listen to your friend and avoid making assumptions about what they need. This is particularly true when you’re from a different culture than the person you’re trying to support.
You can also help by playing the role of accompanier. Go with your friend when they need to visit a lawyer or doctor. It can be comforting for them just to know you’re there.
Many of the trauma survivors I work with eventually realize that they cannot return to the lives they once had. They must consider an Option B—rebuilding new lives for themselves when their previous lives are no longer possible.
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