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Resilience and Surviving Trauma

Module Overview

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.

Checklist and dossiers

Doctor Washing Hands, W. EUGENE SMITH



Will Williams, JAMES GILL


The Lamentation (Pietà), COLIJN DE COTER

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?

Learning Activities


To build students’ observation skills, challenge each student to look at an artwork for thirty seconds and write a list of ten words, phrases, or thoughts associated with the work. After thirty seconds, repeat, adding another ten words or phrases to the list. See Learning Activities PDF for more details.


To build upon observations and link ideas, assign students a viewpoint–or perspective–from which to read the artwork from (such as one of the individuals or objects depicted in the image). Then ask them to write a letter to you from this person or thing’s perspective. The letter should address items that that individual or object might care about, believe in, or wonder about. See Learning Activities PDF for more details.


To encourage students to think like an artist, ask students to design a work of art that demonstrates resilience without using representations or images of human figures.


To build observation skills and develop visual literacy, blindly distribute printed copies of an artwork and do not provide any contextual information in advance. Next, ask students to draw, write, and mark up the image recording observations along the way. Challenge students to write an interpretative response to the work of art using visual evidence to support their understanding of the meaning of the work. See Learning Activities PDF for more details.


To improve research skills and contextual development, assign students to compile a dossier on an artwork. Choose from works listed in the Collection Connections section of a dossier on the checklist above, right.


To help students connect ideas and consider context, assign a work of art and ask students to consider the following questions: 1) what do you see, 2) what do you think about what you see, 3) how do you relate to this artwork or what personal connections do you have, and 4) how is this work related to the world, our place in it, or the larger themes of this class? See Learning Activities PDF for more details.


To encourage students to think like an artist, ask students to create a past, present and future self-portrait to reflect where they’ve been, where they see themselves today, and what their future selves might look like.

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).

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).

Hrag Vartanian, “A Museum Hires a Full-time Therapist,” Hyperallergic (March 22, 2019) podcast, 30 mins.

Elizabeth Yuko, “COVID-19 is Traumatizing All of Us. How Will We Cope After It’s Over?”, Rolling Stone (May 5, 2020).

Eilene Zimmerman, “What Makes Some People More Resilient Than Others,” The New York Times (June 18, 2020).

For more information and additional resources, teachers may contact Katherine Alcauskas or Candie Waterloo. UW–Madison faculty and teaching staff may access these materials on Canvas.