152: Post-Traumatic Thriving, with Randall Bell, Ph.D.

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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By college age, 66-85 percent of all people have been impacted by trauma. And marginalized populations — including those with disabilities like ADHD, autism, and anxiety — are much more likely to experience trauma, many consistently and frequently. We can’t prevent all trauma, but we can affect how our kids (and ourselves) cope with it and heal it.

In this episode, Dr. Randall Bell, author of “Post-Traumatic Thriving,” outlines the three choices an individual faces after trauma and the strategies scientific research identifies as necessary to thrive. If you are the caregiver of a child with ADHD, autism or anxiety, I can almost guarantee your child has been traumatized — and you probably have too — just by trying to succeed as a neurodiverse person in a neurotypical world. I encourage you to listen to this episode and help your family heal. 


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My Guest

Randall Bell, Ph.D.

Randall Bell, PhD, is a sociologist and economist who specializes in disaster recovery projects. No stranger to how harsh the world is, Dr. Bell has consulted in more tragedies around the world than anyone. He was retained for the World Trade Center, Flight 93, Sandy Hook, BP Oil Spill, Hurricane Katrina, the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test sites, the BP Oil spill, the Northridge earthquake, OJ Simpson, Jon Benet Ramsey, Heaven’s Gate, and hundreds of other cases. He has been retained by the Federal Governments of the United States, Canada, and Australia to help resolve numerous crises, and his work has generated billions of dollars to rebuild damaged communities.

Dr. Bell’s investigations have taken him to 50 states, and seven continents. Having met with countless victims, he earned the nickname of Master of Disaster. In every case, Dr. Bell observed the emotional consequences and how some fared better than others. He was inspired to put his unique research skills to work and study the cycle of trauma. In Post-Traumatic Thriving, Dr. Bell lays out the academic research and speaks freely about his trauma of being born with a congenital heart defect. Diagnosed with PTSD, he utilized these principles to heal from his childhood trauma.



Randall Bell 0:03

Having this skill set to teach our kids is one of the greatest gifts we could possibly bestow upon a kid. It's not trust funds and Mother arteries. It's a skill set to move through life to heal from unresolved trauma and enjoy life. It doesn't get better than that.

Penny Williams 0:21

Welcome to The Parenting ADHD podcast, where I share insights and strategies on raising kids with ADHD straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, ADHD a Holic and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started.

Welcome back to The Parenting ADHD podcast. I am honored today to have Dr. Randall bell with me to talk to you about post traumatic thriving, which is his latest book. And we're going to talk about you know how our kids are going through traumas and how we can help them to thrive. On the other side of that. Thanks for being here, Dr. Bell. I'm really honored and excited to have you share some of your wisdom with our parents who are listening. Will you start just by telling everybody who you are and what you do? Well, sure. Hi,

Randall Bell 1:26

Penny, and thanks for the invitation to be speaking with you and on this topic, because it's a topic I'm passionate about. But I'm Dr. Randall Bell. I grew up in Southern California, and I didn't really think much of it until when I really started writing the book. But I was born with a congenital heart defect and I had open heart surgery when I was 11. So I understand childhood trauma because I lived it. And my career is kind of interesting is that I studied disasters, I worked on the World Trade Center flight 93. Crash Site, the Bikini Atoll, nuclear weapons test sites, I worked on the OJ Simpson case JonBenet Ramsey, Hurricane Katrina, the lists, I've worked on hundreds and hundreds of disaster sites around the world. And as an economist, I compute the numbers. But as I met the people behind the statistics, I became far more fascinated with them and their stories. And I went back to school during a PhD, and really studied trauma and how to resolve it. Because these are skill sets. We all need Penny, but we're not taught in school. So that's the topic I'm really passionate about. Because if we can cure and address trauma, the crime and the drug addictions and the workaholism all that will naturally go away.

Penny Williams 2:40

Yeah, yeah, trauma is such a big deal. And I think we don't recognize that it happens as much as it does. A lot of us think that trauma just comes from being victimized or abused as a child or something like that. And you want to explain maybe to the parents listening, what other sorts of trauma is happening.

Randall Bell 3:03

There's a wide menu of traumas such as acute somes, chronic, and anything I call the difficulties in the book, anything from death, disease, divorce, destruction, disasters, any of these things cause trauma, it can be bullying at school, it can be being the bully is usually acting out from unresolved trauma. All these things can be trauma, my trauma I was literally born with. So, you could literally write a book on all the various types of trauma. The great thing, though, is that there's a common denominator in the solutions, whatever the trauma looks like, the solutions for healing from it look very, very similar. So I focus more on the solutions than identifying all the different kinds of trauma because the list is endless,

Penny Williams 3:51

insurmountable. Yes. Yeah. You know, I talk a lot about the fact that kids with ADHD or autism, having a disability in a neurotypical world being marginalized. That is often a traumatic experience. Do you agree with that? Oh, 100%

Randall Bell 4:08

Pity? Yeah. I mean, I felt marginalized at school. I mean, I was surrounded by kind, loving parents and family and kids at school were terrific. But I remember distinctly being in I think it was fourth grade, whatever it was thinking, why is it this summer, I have to go into the hospital and spend the entire summer in the hospital. Whereas all my friends and I looked at the whole playground of hundreds of kids playing and they get to go to the beach. And so yeah, I felt marginalized. And that's a common characteristic of trauma. But the reality is, is that by college age 66 to 85% of us have been traumatized, so and by adulthood, it's 100%. So we all feel marginalized. We all feel these overwhelming feelings from trauma, whatever it looks like. And again, we got to figure out how How to address it because the self medications just don't do it, they cause more problems and cause more trauma.

Penny Williams 5:06

Yeah, avoiding it or denying it never helps. We have to work through it right? Let's talk I think about the three options, the three choices that someone faces when they've had trauma, they've experienced trauma, what comes next?

Randall Bell 5:21

Well, there's trauma. And then there's the book is divided in three sections dive, survive and thrive and dive is where you're knocked down. And that's a phase where we go through the five stages of grief, where we go into shock, denial, anger, we usually land on depression, these are all normal responses, the approach I take in the book is not to feel shame or guilt about being in the dive stage, because this is nature's response to protect us from the full brunt force of the trauma. But if we get stuck on depression, more than two or three months, we really need to take, very serious action to get us out of that place and get from dive to survive. That's where we get back on our feet. And that's where we reclaim our lives. And there's a number of stages there. But ultimately, the book is about thriving, it's about tapping into that energy of the trauma, because trauma creates an enormous amount of fuel. And if we tap into it properly, we can actually do things remarkable that we didn't think we're capable of beforehand. So that's the natural progression of trauma that is dive survive. A lot has been written on that in terms of the science, but I'm really focused on the thriving, the post traumatic, thriving, and if you know the skills, and they're not difficult, they're pretty simple. Actually, you can actually thrive after trauma in ways that we never did before.

Penny Williams 6:44

Yeah. And I think that it's because of books like yours. And we're talking so much more about trauma now. And we're getting the word out that most of us have had some sort of traumatic experience. And now we've built this awareness that, okay, this has happened, and this could be the root of my struggles. And so what do I do with that, and it's so important that we're making sure people know that they or their children can thrive after having a struggle. It's a super important message, especially for our parents to realize that, yeah, it's a struggle. And it's super, super hard a lot of days. But there are ways through it, and there are ways to still thrive beyond it.

Randall Bell 7:30

Well, absolutely. Penny, I agree with every word you just said. And as a parent, I have four kids, and my daughter's visiting with her husband and my granddaughter. And as a parent, there's just so much emotion, so much love we have for our kids, we want to do the best we can for him, particularly a child who has is struggling in some way or another. And having this skill set to teach our kids is one of the greatest gifts we could possibly bestow upon a kid. It's not trust funds and Masais. It's a skill set to move through life to heal from unresolved trauma and enjoy life. It doesn't get better than that.

Penny Williams 8:07

Yeah, absolutely. And I know that a lot of our parents have experienced and I have to with my own son, that our kids try to avoid discomfort and talking about feelings because it's hard. And that's part of working through trauma, right? So how do we help our kids to be able to open up and discuss what's going on for them in a way that is compassionate, and kind of honors, what they're going through, but also can be helpful?

Randall Bell 8:35

Well, Penny, I'm so glad you asked that because I'll use myself as a prime bad example of how to handle that because I made the classic number one mistake with trauma. And that is I didn't talk about it. It was embarrassing. It was an ugly topic. What little boy wants to talk about a heart surgery and the inability to play sports, like my friends, and the whole set back. And just the whole experience was so awful, even though the doctors are great, and they did a great job. And again, the doctors, at the end of my heart surgery, they patted me on the back and they said, okay, kid, go have a great life. We got you all fixed. And so the physical problem was resolved. But the emotional issues were never resolved. I was never taught my parents didn't know the skill set. The schools didn't know the skill set. So I grew up never talking about it. And what I've learned I actually learned when I was volunteered at San Quentin Prison, in the trauma that the inmates go through in terms of facing the horrible crimes committed and the childhood trauma, the backstory behind it. And what they do there and and I give them full credit for teaching this to me is they call it sitting in the fire and it's having these really tough, difficult, ugly conversations about what really happened and facing it head on and talking about it. Maybe not publicly. I'm talking about my heart surgery publicly now, but certainly privately with a trusted friend. therapists, a family member, a pastor, somebody you can trust that will keep things confidential and not offer, you know off the cuff anecdotal advice, simply that will listen and acknowledge and hear it. That is one of the most healing effects you can have from trauma is rule number one, sit in the fire, have those conversations.

Penny Williams 10:21

Yeah, it's so important, so hard for our kids. And I think we just have to keep making them feel safe, right and letting them know that we're here. And we want to help and offering them other people to talk to you, as you were just saying, clergy, or maybe a counselor at a school or some other adult that's not their parent, I think often helps. Of course, a therapist would be great. And a trauma informed or trauma trained therapist would be fantastic if it's a good fit with the child. But yeah, we can't give up we have to keep encouraging them to sit in the fire. I love that. I love that phrase. That's awesome. What else? What are the next stages? How do we choose the thriving rather than just surviving?

Randall Bell 11:05

Well, I call the dynamic duo. And in the book, I spell them both out in the first chapter because I want people to start healing right away. And the two most potent things are one sitting the fire, which we've just discussed, the other one we call grounding. Now grounding goes by a lot of other words, or might be more familiar with that can be yoga, meditation, Lamaze deep breathing exercises. But I explained the physiology in the book with the brain chemistry, what happens when trauma hits, we go from the outer human brain to the inner reptilian brain where we act out of instinct, and it changes our memories of the whole event. And that's why people have memory problems when recalling their trauma. There's a whole brain chemistry physiology to it. But here's the solution, grounding, deep breathing exercises. And again, I learned this from the inmates in San Quentin Prison, deep breathing exercises, resets the brain chemistry, and it's very, very simple, but it's very, very powerful. In fact, Buddhists and Hindus have been doing this for 1000s of years. But at Harvard University, they finally are catching up to that. And out of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Sarah Lazar has published over a dozen studies showing that deep breathing exercises or meditation, actually physically regrows the brain sections of the brain, actually are measurably enhanced with the breathing exercises. And so in going through a traumatic experience, in going from the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems and all that brain chemistry, the simple reality is taking as few as six deep breaths, lowers blood pressure, and brings a sense of calm. And if we can do that for 20 minutes in the morning, or 20 minutes a night, or even better, both. And remember that we're in traffic or in a stressful situation, to be very aware of our breathing and deep breathing, and making that a daily ritualistic habit that in and of itself is incredibly healing. Yeah,

Penny Williams 13:11

it's such a good tool. I know, it's taught a lot for people with anxiety as well. And it can be tough to teach our kids to stop especially are hyperactive kids with ADHD to do a breathing exercise. But there are lots of creative ways to do it. There's yoga and imaginative playbooks and all sorts of things that kind of weave that in, that parents can use to get our kids to do those grounding exercises, those deep breathing exercises. I've used them for my own anxiety at night, it works. There's definitely all the science that you were talking about behind it and a lot of our experience and it absolutely works. Taking a step forward from that event. What else is there that we can do to really foster resilience and these other sort of traits that our kids need in order to be on that path of post traumatic thriving?

Randall Bell 14:08

Well, in the book, I have about a dozen different techniques. I just shared a couple of them, but I think you know, actually implementing these things. They're very simple. They're not difficult, but also having heroes I think is important and that's why in the book I interweave not just the science and the techniques, but I interweave about a dozen stories of people that have been through really horrific traumas, and are today are thriving. I think one that's very inspirational for children is Leo Fender Leo Fender invented the electric guitar the Fender Stratocaster the Fender Telecaster, it's iconic today. It's a billion dollar industry. Khalil fender lived about two streets away from me as I grew up in Fullerton, California, and a lot of people don't realize it. But Leo as a young child was disabled. He was deaf, and he was also he had a picket fence accident and he had a glass sign. So he was half blind and deaf. And yet I sat down with his family and with his wife and studied his evolution from a child to adulthood and the techniques he did, he did exactly what I just talked about. He had a meditative practice with a hot bath every morning, he didn't talk about things, except for with his wife, he got very personal with her. So he had an outlet for discussing things. And in spite of his disabilities, and in spite of these initial setbacks that he had, he created this incredible musical empire. So having heroes like, whether it be Leo Fender, or down the street was Walt Disney, who have obviously, created Disneyland. Another hero of mine is Jerry jewel, I went to high school with Jerry, she was born with cerebral palsy, disabled. And she started on ABC facts of life. And she just recently starred in the movie Deadwood on HBO. So having these heroes, people that have overcome these things really bring a lot of inspiration. And so if we can identify heroes, things that our kids can relate to, and really study their lives and what they did, and be aware of the techniques that they use to bring all this science and all these techniques to life that's in and of itself, very powerful.

Penny Williams 16:20

Absolutely. Yeah. To see others who have gone through a similar journey and are thriving, creates a lot of optimism and hope, which our kids need to move forward. And I would imagine finding a mentor like that for your kids could be really useful as well, in the same way. Having somebody that has had similar experience and can sort of mentor them, they can talk about it and see how they moved through it would be really valuable as well to our kids.

Randall Bell 16:47

Yeah, yeah. It's very inspiring to follow those stories. And I'm not saying everybody's a Leo Fender, fan or all Disney or others. We can identify somebody that we really admire and really look at their backstory, chances are very high that they went through setbacks and trials and trauma, and the earlier stages of life, and really focusing on what they did there just makes the whole topic explode with really kind of some passion, because if they can do it, we can do it.

Penny Williams 17:17

Yeah. Let's just for a minute and talk about what happens when we don't address the trauma. What are the outcomes? I know, there's a lot of science behind this as well. What are we sort of risking for our kids futures if we don't address the trauma?

Randall Bell 17:36

Well, there's such a host of outcomes. Penny I live now part time in Laguna Beach, where there's a homeless shelter. And I see a lot of people there. I volunteer in the Orange County jail system, the prison I mentioned, and in, in battered women's shelters. And what happens is not necessarily people end up in those places, but they certainly do. But I have clients who are billionaires who are absolutely 100%, certified, miserable. So there's nobody who's immune from these things. But the basic result of trauma, if it's not resolved properly, is self medication, whether it's workaholism and becoming a zillionaire or it's alcoholism, which lands you in the homeless shelter, it's going to manifest in some kind of self medication, which is simply trying to soothe the pain from the unresolved trauma. And when I'm talking to the homeless folks, I don't give them a lecture or lay a gouge upon my tell them, I'm not really even interested in their backstories. What I'm interested in is a new set of habits where we can displace these bad habits and these bad attitudes and rebuild our lives. The techniques really work. I've seen folks in my homeless shelter, get reconnected with their families get jobs, kick the addictions, but it's more in the way of addressing the trauma and more importantly, adapting a new set of attitudes and habits. So it really does work. But that's basically what happens if we don't resolve it, we end up in some bad place self medicating.

Penny Williams 19:07

Yeah, and I imagine depression, anxiety can linger into adulthood too, without, I mean, it strikes me that kind of what you're really talking about here is teaching people how to sit in the fire, and be able to do hard things. And, move through them and accept that there are hard things in life. And there are times where things are a complete and absolute struggle, but it's about how you manage it and cope with it. Your mindset and the skills that you have, and being able to move forward and resolve it in a way that helps you to be able to thrive.

Randall Bell 19:47

Exactly Penny on the thing that's so frustrating to me is as a parent and having research this it took me 10 years to write the book is that it's not taught in our schools, and it needs to be because this is an essential life. skill, I really believe, and this may sound like oversell, but if we can get this education, get this information out there, we can change literally change the world. And if we don't change the world, we're gonna change our world for sure. And completely. So it's yeah, it's something we got to just start talking more about,

Penny Williams 20:19

Yeah, agreed 100% We just don't deal with things. And our school system, especially for the kids that we're talking about here with learning challenges and neurodevelopmental differences. They don't fit and they're still sort of being forced or trying to be forced to fit in that round hole as a square peg, and, and that in and of itself is often very traumatic. And then we're not giving the kids the skills to deal with that in the environment in which it's happening to them. But everybody, obviously can really benefit from these skills and being able to sit in the fire and to work on grounding every single day. It's for everyone, not just for people who right now are trying to resolve a certain trauma, right? It's it's a life skill that should be practiced frequently.

Randall Bell 21:11

Well said, Penny, and the thing is, is that I'm 62 years old, so I was going through my childhood trauma about 50 years ago, and I know the school system then. And you know, I learned my multiplication tables, I learned how to write in cursive and I, picked up all those skills and got okay grades. But from what I've seen, not much has changed in the school system today. I mean, I know that there's been tweaking and adjustments in the curriculum. But in terms of addressing post traumatic stress disorder, and addressing post traumatic thriving, it's a zero, it just is not being taught, and that's really, as a parent, as a grandparent are incredibly frustrating. And I guess what we got to do as parents is we got to learn the skill set, and teach them very deliberately and very conscientiously to our children.

Penny Williams 21:58

Yeah. And advocate for our schools to start putting these practices into place. I mean, I hear sometimes about schools who have five minutes of yoga at the start of the day, or do a mindfulness practice when they start their day in their classrooms, but they're very few and far between. And I know that some of those have been studied, and the outcomes are fantastic. But it just seems so hard to change our educational system. It's such a beast that so many people are trying to affect. And I think we just have to keep at it.

Randall Bell 22:36

What you're right. And the reason why in prison we call grounding. Grounding, is because the word meditation can trigger some people and set them off into kind of a rage. And what we're talking about is not a religious practice, right. But this over sensitivity to anything that sounds remotely religious, and I'm all for separation of church and state. But come on. I mean, when, when these skill sets are actually proving through Harvard University that they actually work, we need to turn the dial down on being so hypersensitive to anything that sounds remotely religious. You know, I happen to be religious, I think it's a great trade, but I'm not trying to push that view on anybody else. But on the other hand, the kind of the anti theists crowd is so hypersensitive, that they're really causing an impairment to society, because a lot of healing practices that actually work are being shut down for even a hint of anything that comes off as religious. I think we really have to address that issue and stop being so hypersensitive to things that actually work.

Penny Williams 23:38

Yeah, agreed. You know, there's science behind this, I think maybe shifting that conversation to, the science is showing us that this affects your brain in a way that helps you move through life and thrive could be helpful for some of that, too. When you use the term over sensitivity, it triggered another sort of aspect of this conversation. For me that's completely different than what you were using it to talk about. But, so many of our kids with ADHD, anxiety, autism, probably depression and other things are very sensitive. And their nervous systems are getting triggered so easily and so much more than a neurotypical person. And I think that feeds into the fact that experiences are traumatic for them.

Randall Bell 24:31

Yeah. And I appreciate that. Because I felt the same way as a kid with my situation with my heart condition is that, somebody would say something that was really pretty benign, and it would kind of set me off because I was dealing with this issue. Yeah. And I was keeping it all to myself. I wasn't talking about it. That's again, in my office, we work on these big complex cases, and I tell the staff all the time, the more complex the case, the more we get back to basics, and so With these triggering episodes, and so forth, the Go twos are what we've already talked about in terms of the deep breathing, grounding exercises, and sitting in the fire and talking about it. And the more we do that, the less we get triggered. The whole idea behind trauma recovery is not to forgive and forget not to pretend that the trauma never occurred. Rather, the goal is to allow the memory to pass through our minds without being triggered, and so that our blood pressure is elevated. And we don't act violently or align with the memories with the triggers of these things is the same thing with our kids. That's really the goal is not to stuff it down, not to avoid anything that triggers but rather to manage it and deal with it in a healthy productive way.

Penny Williams 25:44

Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you so much, Dr. Bell for sharing some of your time and your wisdom. I know that our parents listening are going to get so much insight out of this conversation. And I encourage everyone listening to check out Dr. Bell's book, post traumatic thriving, he has other books as well that I think, I'm sure are super helpful to all of us as we move through this life. And you can find that link to the book and to Dr. Bell's website and everything you need to use his work further to help you and your child at the show notes for this episode. And you will get the show notes at parentingADHDandautism.com/152 for episode 152. Again, I thank you so much, Dr. Bell. It's been such an enlightening conversation.

Randall Bell 26:39

Thank you Penny and thank you for the work you're doing to have conversations like these and they help a lot of people.

Penny Williams 26:45

Thank you so much. Without all in the episode. I'll see everyone next time. Thanks for joining me on the parenting ADHD podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses, parent coaching and Mama retreats at parentingADHDandautism.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

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