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Resilience and Surviving Trauma

At some point in our lives, we have all experienced trauma. From our first skinned knee, to our first break up, to the loss of a loved one, no one is exempt. The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic and current civil unrest has awakened many of us to a new trauma – a collective kind that is ever-present in our daily lives. As these difficult times continue to unfold, we must rely on resilience to persist. Defined in simplest terms as the ability to withstand adversity and recover from difficult life events, resilience is what gives us the physical and emotional strength to overcome hardship.


Trauma—an emotional response to a deeply disturbing event — is part of human experience. In the case of events like disease, natural disasters, and war, those it impacts are determined by chance. It is often, therefore, hard to avoid, and indeed, sheltering people from these kinds of traumatic events and others is not always productive, as they may never come to build coping mechanisms. In addition to individual traumas, some trauma is collective—that is, shared among a large group of people, such as a nationality, race, or religious group. Other trauma is trans-generational and unknowingly passed from parent to child. People respond to trauma in different ways, depending on their upbringing, culture, and history of traumatic experiences. There are many factors that might influence whether a traumatic event has lasting effects on an individual or not, including the severity or degree of exposure to the trauma, strength of their social support systems, and access to mental health resources.

Building resiliency is a way for people to manage the traumas they encounter in their lives and continue to function healthily after they have passed. Resiliency does not mean that an individual will never feel grief, sadness, threat, or vulnerability ever again. It does not imply a cure or solution to trauma, but rather, the ability to regulate one’s emotions and responses in the face of trauma and to adapt, sustaining oneself for in the future. In the moments when trauma does occur, however, the resilient can recognize, acknowledge, and process what they are feeling. One way to build resiliency is to reflect upon and learn from one’s past experiences. Art can assist in this process. Studies have shown that both making art and viewing artwork can have beneficial effects, such as improving individuals’ coping mechanisms, problem-solving skills, empathy, self-esteem, mental activity, and feelings of connectedness. Scientists have shown that the body’s fight-or-flight reaction to trauma is pre-verbal; artworks, entrenched in the visual, therefore can serve as an excellent non-verbal mode of communication for processing one’s thoughts, emotions, and complex abstract ideas. In recent years, there has been a rise in museums (such as the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University) incorporating elements of art therapy into their programming and in May 2017, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts became the first North American museum to hire a full-time art therapist to serve on staff, followed by the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University and others.


Maude Feeding Banana to Patient, W. EUGENE SMITH (American, 1918–1978)

Doctor Washing Hands, W. EUGENE SMITH

Doctor, Patient, and Maude, W. EUGENE SMITH

Stanch and Breach, ALISON SAAR (American, b. 1956)

Portrait of BL, ERICH HECKEL (German, 1883–1970)

Will Williams, JAMES GILL (American, b. 1955)

Untitled, DAVID WOJNAROWICZ (American, 1954–1992)

The Lamentation (Pietà),COLIJN DE COTER (Netherlandish, active ca. 1480–1525)

The Raft, BILL VIOLA (American, b. 1951)

Questions for Discussion

1. When you hear the words “resilience” and “resiliency”, what comes to mind? What type of images do you see? What word associations do you have? In other words, what do these terms mean to you?

2. Where have you heard the terms resilience and resiliency used before?

3. Describe a situation when you or someone you know has demonstrated resilience, or when you or someone else could have demonstrated resilience.

4. Do you see resilience as being a quality that someone can learn or develop? If so, how? What small steps do you think you can take or have taken toward becoming more resilient?

Additional Resources

Daniel Grant, “Can Going to a Museum Help Your Heart Condition? In a New Trail, Doctors Are Prescribing Art,” Observer (November 16, 2018)

H. Macpherson, A. Hart, & B. Heaver, Connected Communities: Building resilience through collaborative community arts practice: a scoping study with disabled young people and those facing mental health complexity (Brighton: AHRC, 2012). Note: Faculty can access a pdf on the Chazen’s Canvas website.

Suzanne Moffatt et al, “Link Worker social prescribing to improve health and well-being for people with long-term conditions: qualitative study of service user perceptions,” BMJ Open (2017). Note: Faculty can access a pdf transcription on the Chazen’s Canvas website.

Hrag Vartanian, “A Museum Hires a Full-time Therapist,” Hyperallergic (March 22, 2019) podcast, 30 mins. Note: Faculty can access a pdf transcription on the Chazen’s Canvas website.

Elizabeth Yuko, “COVID-19 is Traumatizing All of Us. How Will We Cope After It’s Over?”, Rolling Stone (May 5, 2020). Note: Faculty can access a pdf on the Chazen’s Canvas website.

Eilene Zimmerman, “What Makes Some People More Resilient Than Others,” The New York Times (June 18, 2020). Note: Faculty can access a pdf on the Chazen’s Canvas website.