Dr. Sherry Hamby discusses trauma and resilience

By Bella Francois
Executive Staff

Dr. Sherry Hamby is research professor of psychology at the University of the South and an award-winning scholar, whose research is specifically focused on trauma and how people process it. Recently, she was able to share her wisdom with the Sewanee community at the TEDxUniversityoftheSouth event entitled “Moving Mountains.”

This event was intended to take place in March 2020, but was delayed until this semester due to COVID. However, the pandemic caused Hamby’s talk to become even more relevant to the Sewanee community in this time. 

“My talk changed some because I felt it was important to acknowledge our dramatically changed circumstances and also what a dose of trauma the pandemic has been for virtually everyone,” explained Hamby. 

Hamby’s talk began by acknowledging the widespread presence of trauma in our community.While people acknowledge that trauma exists, they do not realize that almost everyone will experience some kind of a traumatic experience in their lives, which is based on a narrow view of the concept of trauma. 

“In the 20th century, people realized [trauma] was more common than they previously thought but still did not appreciate how pervasive it is because they tended to study only one type at a time (child abuse, bullying, hate crimes) instead of making comprehensive assessments,” Hamby explained. 

Due to the widespread nature of trauma, it is logical to infer that many people in one’s life have experienced some form of trauma, even psychologists and other health care providers.

 “One of the big takeaways for me personally is that this research means that most psychologists and other health care providers have experienced trauma, and despite the fact that they almost never talk about it, I am not as unusual in that regard as I felt early in my career,” said Hamby. 

Hamby went on to discuss the pressure that psychologists feel to act like they always have everything together, even though their shared experiences inform and benefit them as they treat patients. Trauma is not a shameful experience, she emphasized, but rather a way to help people become stronger. 

“Instead of pretending that our lives are perfect we should be wearing the traumas we survived like badges of honor,” she said. 

Also, Hamby stressed that trauma survivors do not have to suffer alone, as there are many resources and coping mechanisms available to students on this campus, and for trauma survivors in general. 

“I would like to tell all of the trauma survivors on campus that, in the end, good stuff matters more than bad stuff. It is possible to overcome even large doses of trauma by building in more strengths–creating or accessing resources, whether they come from you, your family, your friends, or the community,” she explained. 

Hamby stressed the importance of taking productive measures to deal with trauma, such as getting involved in the community in order to foster a sense of purpose in one’s life. 

“I also think that collective action is underrated–getting involved with making your community safer and better can be very healing too. It’s important to acknowledge the past, but it’s also important to look forward and find a sense of purpose to give your life meaning,” she said. 

Another way Hamby suggested dealing with trauma is through exercise and spending time outdoors. In fact, her research has shown that exercise can be as effective as psychotherapy and medication. At Sewanee, we have a unique opportunity to spend time outdoors and exercise due to the expansive Domain . 

“There’s a growing science on the benefits of “shinrin yoku” (“forest bathing” in Japanese). Spending time outside in natural environments can be very healing too and we are fortunate we have our beautiful domain to support our wellbeing,” she explained. 

Trauma is a difficult experience for many people to process but Hamby emphasized that as a people, we are stronger than we think and it is possible to overcome trauma with the right resources. We all may experience trauma but we all can grow from it as well. 

“If trauma is common, so is resilience,” she concluded.