Why do most people bounce back from a traumatic experience after a few weeks or months when others struggle for years with anxiety or PTSD? What protects some people from the effects of trauma? What can we do to promote resiliency from trauma? The answer might have to do with 'extinction.'
In psychological parlance 'extinction' can be a good thing. Extinction means 'unlearning' a conditioned response. Remember Pavlov and his dogs? Ring the bell and feed the dogs, eventually the dogs will salivate at the sound of the bell. That is conditioning. Well, after a while if they get their food without the bell, the conditioning wears off and the dogs don't salivate anymore, and that is extinction learning; learning that something that was once associated with an experience may not be connected to that experience.
Maladaptive trauma responses, including disorders like PTSD, probably have something to do with conditioned response. People with PTSD may associate all sorts of things with the original trauma so they are triggered to re-experience the trauma by a smell or sound, or they seek to avoid being in situations which call to mind the trauma, even though objectively those circumstances aren't dangerous. Richard Bryant, a researcher into responses to trauma, has done a really smart prospective study that suggests that a person's pre-trauma capacity for 'extinction learning', his or her ability to 'unlearn' the connection between a negative experience and the circumstances surrounding it, is very predictive of the ability to bounce back from trauma. He describes it at about 31 minutes of this video. The whole video is interesting but this piece is only about four minutes.
Here's the study for those of you interested in checking it out. Bryant doesn't talk about what predisposes people to be better or worse 'extinction learners.' Some of it probably has to do with genetic factors. I would be curious to know to what degree cognitive flexibility, the ability to change one's ideas about the world, correlates with extinction learning. Cognitive flexibility can be enhanced by all sorts of things. If you want to test your cognitive flexibility, some of these tests, like the Stroop test, are good measures. In the interests of full disclosure I did pretty badly on the Stroop test. Not sure what that means for my chance of extinction.