Between devastating natural disasters, events like the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and reports of an active shooter on the USC campus yesterday (which now may have been based on a false report), it can seem like traumatic events are becoming frequently more present in our news feeds, public discussion, and our own lives. Recognizing signs of natural responses to trauma, and when these responses might indicate more severe problems, can be important for victims of trauma as they go through the healing process. This can also be equally important for those who are attempting to support and care for a loved one who has experienced trauma, as being an effective caretaker to someone who has experienced trauma presents its own challenges.
RESPONDING TO TRAUMA:
Everyone responds to trauma in their own unique way. However, there are several patterns of behavior and thinking where these responses are most evident. For example, many people might become preoccupied with thinking about their trauma or events related to the trauma to the point where it is difficult for them to thinking of anything else. Reoccurring dreams or nightmares where the person “re-lives” their trauma are also common. This can often lead to people having a hard time falling asleep or being able to easily sleep through the night.
People who experience trauma might experience “emotional numbing” where their normal responses of positive or negative emotions is significantly reduced to the point where they might appear indifferent to activities that brought them a great deal of joy, comfort, and excitement in the past. On the other hand, people might also experience heightened negative emotions such as becoming increasingly irritable, short-tempered, or even hostile. They might be constantly on the lookout for danger, be easily startled, or appear anxious or on-edge.
One of the most common responses to trauma involves avoidance. People who experience trauma often seek to avoid anything associated with their traumatic event including people, locations, and activities. They also might become more avoidant in general such as staying away from large crowds or even small groups of people, and become hypersensitive to loud noises. They may even become more avoidant of friends and family and attempt to remain increasingly isolated. This can result both from an attempt to protect themselves from perceived further danger, as well as not wanting to burden those they care about with the pain they are experiencing.
Its important to note that these responses are not exclusive to people who have experienced trauma themselves. Witnessing or hearing about particularly traumatic events might also trigger many of the same responses either as a result of imagining yourself in the role of the victim, or simply by being confronted by the weight of the event.
All of the above responses are common reactions to trauma and are how we attempt to cope with stress and danger, and keep ourselves safe from further harm. However, when these patterns persist for a significant amount of time after the danger has past, or are negatively affecting our relationships, responsibilities, or our ability to feel like our old selves, it might be an indication that someone is struggling and in pain.
WHAT CAN I DO?:
Taking the time to acknowledge and process the impact that a traumatic event has had can be essential to the long-term healing process. While becoming focused and dedicated to another project or task following trauma can sometimes be a helpful distraction for people to regain a sense of normalcy, refusing to acknowledge or minimizing the impact of a traumatic event will delay the healing process. Sometimes, significant steps need to be taken such as taking off time from work or school and seeking out intensive professional help. Other times, incorporating healthy positive activities into your existing routine can provide you with the support needed to feel safe, grounded, and moving towards being your old self.
Dedicating small chunks of time during the day and week that are set-aside exclusively for positive self-care activities can help people regain a sense of control and structure after the helplessness and chaos that result from trauma. This might include journaling for 20 minutes every morning, taking 10 minutes of your lunch break to practice some brief yoga or meditation, or making an agreement with a friend or group of people to get together for an activity at a set time every week. Becoming engaged in a cause or organization following a traumatic event can also be positive ways to connect with other survivors of trauma and feel empowered. The American Trauma Society is a great resources for survivors of trauma, their loved ones, and those who want to make a difference
HELP AND SUPPORT:
Its important that when you are coping with trauma you are not going through it alone. Having a support system of people who you know you can rely on is often essential to healthy recovery from trauma. After experiencing a trauma it is not uncommon to feel vulnerable, isolated, alone, and that others will not understand what you have been through. Even if you have a good support system of friends and family, seeking out help through group or individual therapy can provide a safe and validating place to objectively and empathically process what you have been through. Even a short period of therapy following trauma can have a powerful effect on help individuals process and adapt to the unavoidable changes that often follow it.
If you are looking for support processing your experience of a traumatic event, or know someone who is looking for help, you are welcome to call me (262) 607-2226