Trauma and Recovery with Randall Bell

An interview with the author of a book on how to thrive in the face of disaster

Randall Bell, PhD., has literally made a career out of studying disasters. People all over the world have called on the world-renowned sociologist and economist has been to investigate countless tragedies. He’s studied and given his expertise on Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the Sandy Hook shooting, and OJ Simpson’s murder trial, and many more crises. Through his role, he has worked with victims of crime, prisoners, the homeless and more. In his latest book, Post-traumatic Thriving, inspired by his own trauma, Dr. Bell combines both scientific studies and personal stories to offer a guidebook on how to use trauma to not just survive, but in fact thrive.


People have dubbed you “the master of disaster:. What made you get into a career in disaster relief? And, being so entwined in the lives of people in the midst of tragedies and being at the forefront of countless natural disasters and personal ones, how do you separate yourself from your work? Do you ever fully separate?

The LA Times first called me that and I just went with it. I even have the website  I seem to have a high threshold for disasters. I’m not really that interested in the disaster, but I love to be a part of the solutions and reconstruction.

The book is all about this whole idea of using trauma to thrive. What would you say is the most crucial point that one should grasp in order to really do that?

With trauma there do seem to be people who have “near enchanted” lives. I know a few of these people, and I’m jealous too! But statistically, by college-age 66% to 85% have faced at least one trauma–and of course that percentage goes up from there. When facing a trauma, the first thing someone has to do is to admit that there is a problem. Most people do the classic “bottle it up” and that will become a ticking time bomb.

What do you say to those naysayers who don’t believe in therapy and do bottle up their trauma?

That’s complicated. I would ask why. Perhaps they went to a therapist who was not suited for them. Ultimately, I would tell them that they need to find someone to talk to and “tell your story.” We cannot heal from a trauma when we have not fully told our story.

In terms of holding our trauma in for too long, do you believe in the theory that it is never too late? How important is it to deal with our trauma right away?

No, it is never too late. Everyone is different. Some people do the work and bounce right back. Some take years. Based upon what I see in prison, it is often about a two-year period. The important thing is to really process each of the 15 steps (topics of the 15 chapters) fully–and make sure you are always ready to move on to the next step.

The Victim Cycle vs the Bully Cycle. You write about these two different paths of dealing with trauma. Is one cycle more harmful than the other? What is the key to breaking through?

Talking about one’s trauma is vital in this process.  Ultimately you own it and make a decision to be assertive. We decide we will never tolerate that BS again, all while holding onto our good traits that make us who we are.

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Elizabeth Hazard

Elizabeth Hazard is a writer, producer and photography director. Her work has appeared in various publications and she writes frequently about art, culture, fashion and history.

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