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Understanding Trauma

While the term trauma was originally largely confined to medicine and psychotherapy, it’s found its way into everyday language, where it is often used, semantically overstretched, for any form of painful or frustrating experience.  Yes, even for the infamous word…Covid-19. We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in […]

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While the term trauma was originally largely confined to medicine and psychotherapy, it’s found its way into everyday language, where it is often used, semantically overstretched, for any form of painful or frustrating experience.  Yes, even for the infamous word…Covid-19.

We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.

Traumatic events encompass anything from a sexual assault or physical/mental abuse to a cancer diagnosis.  “By abuse, we often mean things that are a lot milder than things people typically think of as abuse. It might include being hit with a hard object, like a whip, a belt, or a paddle,” says Roberts. “The behavior doesn’t necessarily need to be illegal to induce a traumatic response.”

People who experience traumatic events sometimes develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.  PTSD can develop after a person experiences violence or the threat of violence, including sexual violence. It may affect people who have a close relative who experienced those things as well. These traumatic events are generally incidents that are considered outside the ordinary and are exceptional in their intensity.

Avoidance of painful intrusions as a measure of self-protection is only one of the reasons that makes it difficult to share a traumatic experience with others. There are many other reasons such as: speaking about what happened can be subject to interdiction, social taboo, or shame; a common ground of experience or knowledge is missing; one does not want to burden others with one’s own pain; the violation and the suffering have not yet been socially acknowledged.

    “[A]nyone speaking or writing about concentration camps is still regarded as suspect; and if the speaker has resolutely returned to the world of the living, he himself is often assailed by doubts with regard to his own truthfulness, as though he had mistaken a nightmare for reality.” (Arendt 1951/1979: 439)

Our risk for mental and physical health problems from a past trauma goes up with the number of events we’ve experienced. For example, your risk for problems is much higher if you’ve had three or more negative experiences, called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs..  Adverse events include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, witnessing domestic violence, substance misuse within the household, mental illness within the household, parental separation or divorce and incarceration of a household member.

While severely traumatic events are believed to have the greatest effect on long-term health, other stressful events that don’t necessarily meet the psychological definition of trauma can still cause problems. This might include a sudden death in the family, a stressful divorce, or caring for someone with a chronic or debilitating illness. These milder events might lead to a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression. Trauma pushes your ability to cope, so if you have a predisposition toward anxiety, for example, it may push you over the edge.

People who are suffering from traumatic memories may try to escape them by participating in risky behaviors such as drinking, smoking, drug use, compromising behavior for acceptance or even overeating for comfort.  Coping mechanisms are used as a way of dealing with emotional disregulation that occurs when someone has been traumatized. These habits, in turn, lead to health problems.  Experts believe that there is actually a direct biological effect that occurs when your body undergoes extreme stress. When you experience something anxiety-provoking, your stress response activates. Your body produces more adrenaline, your heart races, and your body primes itself to react. Someone who has experienced trauma may have stronger surges of adrenaline and experience them more often than someone who has not had the same history.

People who have experienced trauma may also struggle with getting help. One of the most common outcomes of trauma is avoidance.  It makes sense. If you experience something traumatic, you want to avoid thinking about it and going to places that remind you of it.  Some people may be in denial about the role past trauma is playing in their life. One of the hallmarks of trauma is the fact that people often use defense mechanisms to protect themselves from stress. Denial is one of those, as is trying to normalize past problems.

To get more information about trauma and PTSD or to find treatment resources, the following professional resources may be of use:

  • The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (www.istss.org)
  • The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (www.adaa.org)
  • The National Center for PTSD (www.ptsd.va.gov).

Taking steps to address the problem may also help others in your life. Very often people who have experienced trauma pass problems on to others in their family through a process called observational learning. So, helping yourself may help those around you. Consider these steps:

Work with a therapist. A trained therapist can help you reframe what happened to you and help you move past it. Exposure therapy is the idea of exposing yourself in small doses to the thing that was most traumatizing, with someone there to support you.

Take care of yourself. There are numerous lifestyle measures that can help you reduce stress and anxiety. These include yoga, swimming, walking, journaling and meditation. Regular exercise can also help you manage stress and other symptoms.

Reach out to others. Research has shown that maintaining strong social ties with friends and family members is crucial to good mental health.  Become part of a support network. 

People, organizations, and societies can emerge from crisis stronger.  What good can come of this? In times of crisis, people often ask that question. This year we’ve been hit by a pandemic that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and a global economic downturn. In the face of such a tragedy, it might appear that the answer is “Nothing.”

EDUCATION: To move through trauma to growth, one must first get educated about what the former is: a disruption of core belief systems. For example, before the pandemic, many of us thought that we were safe from the types of diseases that endangered people in the past and that our social and economic systems were resilient enough to weather all storms. None of that was true. So now we need to figure out what to believe instead.

EMOTIONAL REGULATION: To do any learning, one must be in the right frame of mind. That starts with managing negative emotions such as anxiety and anger. Instead of focusing on failures, uncertainties and worst-case scenarios, try to recall successes, consider best-case possibilities and think reasonably about what you can do.

NARRATIVE DEVELOPMENT: The next step is to produce an authentic narrative about the trauma and our lives afterwards so that we can accept the chapters already written and imagine crafting the next ones in a meaningful way. Your story — and the stories of people you’re helping — can and should be about a traumatic past that leads to a better future.

SERVICE: People do better in the aftermath of trauma if they find work that benefits others — helping people close to them or victims of events similar to the ones they have endured. Identify with organizations that thrive under the leadership of people who have faced similar losses and want to share the strength they’ve gained.   Focusing on how you can help provide relief during the continuing crisis — whether by sewing masks, retraining teammates, supporting small businesses or agreeing to a temporary pay cut — can lead to growth. So can simply expressing gratitude and showing compassion and empathy to others. Perhaps you can help those most seriously affected.

People are often surprised by how well they can handle trauma. They are left better equipped to tackle future challenges. Groups often come through such trials with a clearer picture of their collective knowledge, skills, resilience and growth potential. Trauma can also help forge new relationships and make people more grateful for the ones they already have. Coming through a crisis together is a bonding experience.

If you’re thinking this is all too optimistic, you may still be too close to the tragedy of this pandemic. So be patient as you work through and facilitate the process of post-traumatic growth. Growth can’t be forced, and it can’t be rushed. However, when you and others are ready, it is worth the effort. Let’s make sure that we derive something positive from this time of struggle.

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