Dealing with trauma and hardship requires personal resilience skills

Published On: 3 February 2022|

Resilience is about thriving and growing despite the hardship or challenge that has engulfed us. That was the message of Dr Norah Clarke, Director: Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) to the student women who attended the Economic Activation Workshop of The Student Women Economic Empowerment Programme (SWEEP) last week.

She said resilience was as essential for businesswomen as it was for those who have suffered trauma and hardship. Resilience was a recurring theme in many speakers’ presentations at the inaugural SWEEP Economic Activation Workshop.

Speaking on the last day of the workshop, Dr Clarke was part of a panel of three, unpacking the psychological as well as the practical aspects of resilience – how to tap into it through getting to know yourself and how to deal with, or manage it.

Joining her on the interactive panel to discuss the topic Growing Personal Resilience for a Resilient Business,were Dr Carina van der Walt, Educational Psychologist and Cultural Transition Expert and Ms Kholiswa Masiso, an Educational Student on Internship.

Safety Net

Dr Clarke (above), whose area of expertise is trauma and women recovering from extreme trauma, told the participants: “Statistically, one of four of us taking part in this workshop has been a victim of rape and endured severe trauma. That is what SWEEP is about: having that safety net of sustainability and resilience skills that carry you through times of extreme economic and emotional hardship.”

She kicked off by saying that personal resilience was a strong part of the audience’s identity, able to benefit women entrepreneurs or any woman taking her place in the economy. She added that resilience had received newfound prominence as it was a word rarely heard pre-pandemic.

Interactive session

Dr Clarke kicked off the interactive session with a question: Why is resilience important?

Audience responses:

  • It helps maintain balance in our lives during stressful times.
  • Helps overcome difficulties.
  • Resilience gives strength.

Panelist, Ms Masiso, said: “We go through difficulties that we think we will not overcome, but we can. We need to look for help.” Dr Carina van der Walt added: “Balance is very important in the process of being and becoming resilient.”

Agreeing with all the responses above, Dr Clarke explained that all economic participation, either through employment or running a business (having a side hustle or a gig) was vastly better if run by a resilient woman. “Then you have the strength, balance and the ability to overcome and to grow and thrive.”

Then she asked the next question: What do YOU think resilient means?


  • The ability to bounce back.
  • To adapt and overcome hardship.
  • Surviving regardless of hardships you face.
  • Against all odds.
  • Pushing forward when you have no energy.

Dr Clarke said that while all the responses were accurate, research provides another aspect to resilience: “It also means to grow and thrive despite the horrible things that have happened.”

Psychological assessment

Most lives, she said, begin with carefree innocence that becomes blurred and often lost as life progresses.

In her input on psychological assessment, Dr Carina van der Walt (above) talked about the reality of what one deals with psychologically and emotionally. “In a sense it goes back to identity – I must acknowledge where I’m at: a place of confusion, discouragement, brokenness, trauma. Then we must start with our sense of self, acknowledge the reality we are facing and become fully aware of what is happening inside me. How do I feel? How does my body make sense of what is happening to me?”

The presentation included slides, the first image being that of a woman crouched against a wall with her hands over her face.  Describing how the image made her feel, panellist Masiso said: “I see fear. Sometimes we fear the fear and are too scared to share it.” Dr van der Walt said it was important to have a safe team around when sharing because images are capable of evoking intense emotions.

Images trigger emotion

The participants were asked about another image – that resembled Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The audience’s interpretations featured the words despairmental tormentsurprise, hopelessness, anguish.

The third image was of a woman with her eyes closed, looking forlorn. This time around, the audience interpreted the emotion as: grief, despair, lost hope, hurt, exhaustion, overwhelmed.

In another story, of adversity, and how to deal with it, Ms Kholiswa Masiso (above) shared her journey of despondency, of being judged and ridiculed and how she made peace with it. She was employed as a manager in the Eastern Cape, a position that came with a salary and a car. She made the decision to give up her job and return to studying which meant she had to give up the cushy job and resorted to selling pancakes to backpackers near Jeffreys Bay. When she returned to her village and was seen walking, she was mocked for having no car and ridiculed for selling pancakes.

“I refused to be embarrassed. I knew that my decision to study – I’m in my second year at university – was the right one. My heart is at peace. I love what I’m doing.”

The discussion then turned to feelings.  Presenting the colour orange on a slide, Dr van der Walt asked whether people attached feeling to colour. “In psychology there are different perspectives on the use of colour. Each person attaches her own meaning to colour.  If, for instance, 20 people associate sadness with orange, only then can I conclude that orange depicts sadness.”

Reflecting on emotion

Dr Clarke said the reason she wanted the audience to reflect on the emotions raised by the images was that “before we heal, we need to know where we are at. We need to be able to recognise the emotions that we are struggling with, emotions that come up in unexpected places and catch us off guard. We need to give them names, to recognise them. That is part of the healing and recovery process.”

Dr van der Walt added: “When we acknowledge it, we start working with it.”

Dr Clarke said: “A key part of resilience research is not often mentioned: that before a person can become resilient there has to be an active, conscious choice. You have to make a decision to say Yes, that happened.”

Resilience, she said, is not about coping.

“A truly resilient person is one who grows from the experience. Resilience means you go beyond where you were before the trauma or hardship, to a place of bigger strength, to a healthier version of yourself than you were before the trauma.”

She added that hardship and uncertainty often go hand in hand with economic participation. “Regardless of all your plans, you could be left uncertain about where you next meal is coming from; how to pay the bills,” Dr Clarke said.

Resilience is the ability to:

  • Endure (coping)
  • Recover (bouncing back)
  • Grow through hardship

Four things about resilient women:

  • They accept the reality facing them without going into denial.
  • They find meaning in difficult times.
  • They have the ability to improvise.
  • They are able to make do with whatever is at hand. They adapt.

Five tools to grow resilience:

  • Manage your mind:
    You can control your own thoughts.  Take responsibility for yourself. Refrain from thinking of yourself as a victim. Don’t ask ‘Why Me?’ Ask ‘Why not me?’ Do not slip into denial. Face the reality. Prepare yourself to act in ways that enable you to endure and survive – even before it becomes necessary. Always have a Plan B.
  • Search for meaning:
    Reframe the story of your suffering, your hardship, your trauma to create some form of meaning for yourself or others. Find something positive from the challenge. Build a bridge from what you are dealing with in that place of trauma to a better future. This will make the present feel better.
  • Improvise. You are a creative being:
    Make plans, expect change and choose to be adaptable. Be innovative. Make the most of what you have. Look at your assets. Look at your resources and use them in new ways. Imagine the possibilities that others do not see.
  • Faith:
    Anchor yourself in faith. Faith helps cope with challenges. Faith allows us to detach ourselves from victimisation and worry and destructive thoughts. Prayer or meditation can be a pause for reflection and allow you to transfer the focus from your wounds to how those wounds might cause some greater growth in you and some new insight. Step back from your problem. Acknowledge it. Attempt to understand its interconnection to the world outside.
  • Social Support Network:
    Establish a strong support network – NOT anything that is on social media but real people who are in your physical life; people you can count on; who will be there for you. That will help you maintain perspective. Stay healthy, mentally and physically. Your network could be small – the four or five people who are there for you in tough times.

Grow your social support network through different layers of society. Do not only pick people like you. People in different layers have different networks, different skills, access to different resources, give different advice. You cannot only take from people – it must be reciprocal. You give first and then when the tough times come someone might be there for you. Those are the relationships you invest in. Identify and remove the toxic relationships in your life.  As you give of yourself, maintain your personal boundaries. Do not allow others to take advantage of you. Stay in control of your boundaries.

Launched in October 2021, SWEEP is an initiative of the EDHE programme and was inspired by widespread concern over the under representation of women in entrepreneurship.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.