Elizabeth Stanley, a resilience expert and U.S. Army veteran, examines examines the neurobiology of stress, trauma and resilience in military personnel and other people who function in high-stress environments.
An event that is stressful for one military service member may be traumatizing for another, according to Georgetown resilience expert and scholar Elizabeth Stanley.
She says many view stress and trauma as two distinct experiences, in part because researchers and practitioners tend to focus on one or the other. But as she’s analyzed military personnel and other people who function in high-stress environments, she has found that the two states of mind are part of a continuum.
Stress arousal occurs when someone appraises an experience as threatening or challenging. Traumatic stress occurs during stress arousal when someone also feels helpless, powerless or lacking control.
“Whenever we encounter a threatening or challenging experience, whether we’ll experience stress or trauma depends upon our current level of resilience,” explains Stanley, associate professor of security studies. “The greater our resilience, the more likely we’ll be able to access agency during stressful experiences – and thus the less likely we’ll experience trauma.”
“So when a thirteen-person infantry squad encounters an ambush, we can be sure that there will be thirteen different mind-body responses because there will be thirteen different windows of tolerance to stress-arousal meeting that ambush.”
She says people with wider windows of tolerance may find an event stressful while those with narrower windows may find it traumatic.
Stanley, who holds a joint position in the School of Foreign Service and in the government department in Georgetown College, examines the neurobiology of stress, trauma and resilience in her most recent book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma (Avery, 2019).
Widen the Window, released this past September, explores the cultural norms that impede resilience in America, especially the collective tendency to disconnect stress from its consequences and override the need to recover.
“Many people, especially people who work in high-stress professions like the military, have conditioned themselves to ‘power through’ challenges, setbacks and traumatic events with perseverance,” she says. “While this capacity to compartmentalize and keep going can be absolutely critical during life-or-death situations, it has some dark consequences as a habitual way of relating over the longer term.”
When people don’t recover from stress and trauma, she says, suppressed pain may manifest itself through physical illnesses, chronic pain, addictions, adrenaline-seeking behavior or self-harming behavior.
“I saw this happen in my own life after I left active duty, and I’ve seen it in the lives of many hard-charging people whom I’ve trained,” says Stanley, who served as a U.S. Army intelligence officer in Asia, Europe and on two deployments in the Balkans before leaving service as a captain in the 1990s.
Stanley also incorporated expertise in the book that she gained in developing Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)®, tested through four Department of Defense neuroscience studies with the U.S. military.
She has employed MMFT with thousands in high-stress environments –for troops preparing for combat, first-responders, inmates at a maximum-security prison, healthcare providers, executives in the corporate world and members of Congress.
“People who work in high-stress environments are often called upon to make split-second life-or-death choices or high-stakes decisions that can have major strategic consequences,” she adds. “In these situations, the ability to remain calm, even-handed and resolute is critical.