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Resilience: The Foundation of Hope


I respect and appreciate the research and science of Hope and think people should learn about Chan Hellman's work.  I do not believe you can replace resilience with Hope.  They are two distinct concepts that work together to bring about trauma integration. I believe, and science research supports the idea, that children or adults living in adversity and toxic stress must first achieve some aspects of resilience before we can ask them to strengthen their decision-making and goal setting skills (competency skills). Resilience is enhanced by building a safe, support system and learning or strengthening regulation skills before strengthening competency skills.

Research shows that people currently living in adversities without a support system (the definition toxic stress) have lower functioning in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  Executive functions such as inhibitory control, flexible thinking and working memory all take place in the prefrontal cortex. When children or adults are living in toxic stress, they have a felt sense of vulnerability and loss of control creating big emotions or fight, flight, or freeze reactions in the brain.  Science tells us that when a person is reacting from the emotional or survival parts of the brain, the thinking part (prefrontal cortex) cannot function as well. In fact, children raised in toxic stress develop fewer neural connections in the prefrontal cortex. People who have experienced toxic stress as a child or are currently living in trauma first need emotional and physical safety and a trusting relationship to build connection before that can fully access their executive functions necessary to utilize the concepts/activities included in Chan Hellman's Hope work.

We also know that people who do not feel safe have a difficult time imagining their future; they are focused on surviving in the present. Their belief system often includes thoughts like: I am not good enough/smart enough; no one can be trusted; the world is dangerous; I will never succeed; I have no future.  Before they begin the tasks for Hope of setting goals and creating pathways, they must have a felt sense of physical and emotional safety which often takes place within the bounds of a trusted relationship.

Finally, we also know that children and families living in toxic stress have less inhibitory control (another executive function of the prefrontal cortex).  This means that they lack the ability at times to delay gratification, stop themselves from doing something they know they should not, or focus on a task. These are all abilities needed to fulfill the willpower or “agency” to follow through with Hope goals. Research tells us that people raised in toxic stress need to learn and use regulation and competency skills strengthen their inhibitory control.

Chan Hellman’s worksheets and Hope scales are part of the third piece of building resilience and trauma integration.  They lie in the realm of Competency skills that need to be strengthened in people living in toxic stress.  However, research tells us over and over that we cannot ask people to use or increase their Competency skills before they feel safe and have a trusting relationship or before they know how to regulate and express their emotions. Bruce Perry states it well, “Regulate, Relate, Reason.”   The order here is critical! Until a child is regulated (i.e., feeling physically and emotionally settled), he is unlikely to be able to relate to you (i.e., feel connected and comfortable). And until a child is related, he is unlikely to have the mental capacity to fully engage with you in the higher-level cognitive processes that are critical for problem-solving, like perspective taking, predicting the future, and considering multiple solutions. This is not just true for traumatized children, but for all children (and all adults too)! The evidence based research of Margaret Blaustein and Kristin Kinniburgh demonstrates that to reach trauma integration a child needs strong attachment (which requires a felt sense of safety), then skills to regulate and express emotions, before competency skills can be strengthened. The first two principles of Hope (Hope is a way of thinking, not an emotion; and Imagination is the instrument of Hope) both require executive function and competency skills that cannot be accessed fully until the person feels safety and support.

I do believe Hope is a wonderful way to augment decision making, goal setting, and visualizing a future- all competency skills. People cannot skip to the end result though. We must first build resilience through trusting, safe relationships and strengthening regulation skills. The two concepts work in conjunction. Resilience builds the foundation for the exploration of Hope.

Cheryl Step   Creating Resilience, LLC

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