PTSD and Self-Efficacy: Being Able to Protect Yourself

July 24, 2013 Michele Rosenthal

My client, Selena, was raped at knifepoint in Los Angeles at the age of the twenty-three.

“I stayed quiet,” she recalls. “I did what he said. I didn’t struggle; I didn’t scream. I think it’s because I did those things that I’m still alive.”

While, rationally, Selena can imagine that giving up her response kept her safe, she’s plagued now by a persistent doubt in her ability to keep herself safe.

“Faced with any kind of threat in the future,” she tearfully explains, “I can’t trust myself to protect me.”

Selena’s post-trauma fears are completely natural. Many of us (myself included) look back on our traumatic situations and see, think or feel we should have done things differently. Whether it’s by choice or we’re simply overwhelmed by an involuntary freeze response during a traumatic moment, many survivors are left with the feeling afterward that we are not adept at being effective in moments that require it.

Defining Self-Efficacy

The term ‘self-efficacy’ refers to one’s ability to feel ‘effective’. That is, able to perform with full functionality in a specific role or task. Psychologist, Albert Bandura, extends that to describe self-efficacy as your belief in your ability to succeed in specific situations. Think back to your trauma. How sure did you feel that your actions alone would allow you to be safe, endure or survive? Examine your feelings today. How sure do you feel that your actions alone can and will allow you to be safe, endure and survive?

My own self-efficacy took a huge plummet after my trauma, during which I had an out of body experience. During that moment as I rose out of my body I truly felt, wished and wanted to die. There was a black tunnel at the ceiling ringed with white light. I moved toward it as if pulled by a magnet; I made the conscious decision to stop fighting for my survival. My mother is the person responsible for bringing me back into my body and demanding that I find the strength to pull through a life-threatening situation. I was thirteen years old. For years afterward I believed that if it weren’t for my mother I wouldn’t have survived. I believed that on my own and left to my own devices I wasn’t capable of surviving. My belief in my ability to succeed in critical situations evaporated leaving me feeling weak, cowardly and powerless.

(Re)Developing Self-Efficacy

If you feel you’ve lost some of your self-efficacy mojo, hang in there. Gaining back a feeling of being on your own side is easier than you might think. It has everything to do with re-engaging in activities that strengthen old skills and develop new ones. Try this:

Do what you’re good at – Everyone (including you!) possesses unique skills and qualities at which we naturally succeed. In the negativity bias and perspective of PTSD you probably don’t spend much time focusing on the good in you, or your naturally effective capabilities. Think back over your whole life. Go year to year and search out the moments you felt strong and powerful in activities that were healthy and safe. What is it about those actions that made you feel so effective? How can you do those activities more often, or incorporate those skills in daily living in new and creative ways? Our brains and we change through the repetition of experience. The more you experience feeling effective the more naturally you will see that feeling spread from moments of low to high stress.

Try something new – Personal growth and development requires stretching and challenging yourself. While it can feel uncomfortable, going outside of your comfort zone – and being able to handle and master that space – can lead to terrifically increased feelings of self-efficacy. What have you always wanted to try but been too afraid to attempt? How can you approach that activity now in ways that make it seem accessible? Who can support you in this area, and even help you succeed?

In her recovery Selena decided to develop her sense of self-efficacy by taking a self-defense class. She also enrolled in a weekly kickboxing class. Both of these experiences evolved her feeling of physical capability, plus focused her mind in ways that were automatically reactive in moments that called for a quick response.

At the base of PTSD recovery is not only a shift from reactive to responsive mode but also a shift from powerless to powerful. Developing your level of self-efficacy can play a critical role in making these shifts. Approached and achieved slowly over a period of time, self-efficacy in small and inconsequential areas lay the groundwork for larger successes in more crucial moments. As with all healing practices, chunk down this task into manageable increments. Plus, expect to need to practice many times to achieve the ultimate success. While playing with this process remember: You survived, which means your self-efficacy has deep roots in who you are. You may have become temporarily disconnected from its source but since the source resides within you the potential for you to reconnect – and amp up the power of it – always remains.

Michele is the author of Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity. Connect with her on Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and her website,

APA Reference
Rosenthal, M. (2013, July 24). PTSD and Self-Efficacy: Being Able to Protect Yourself, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 22 from

Author: Michele Rosenthal

After Sexual Assault - Establishing Personal Physical Safety | Trauma! A PTSD Blog
August, 6 2013 at 1:55 am

[...] one’s sense of personal safety, after such a catastrophe? Michele’s July 24 blog post - PTSD and Self-Efficacy: Being Able to Protect Yourself – launches into this question, and it got a distinct reaction from me. I urgently wanted to [...]

December, 19 2015 at 4:37 am

Hello Selena,
My name is Lee and I have CPTSD
I have been thinking about self-efficacy and how my self-effiicacy tank is low at the moment.
As I walk along my path, I know this is something I need to allow myself to reconnect with it and practice, practice, practice!
I love how you say 'you survived, which means self-efficacy has deep roots in who you are' This statement is very inspiring.
I like activities you suggest in your post. They look simple, yet so helpful!
Thank you for your post

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