Developing and Coping with Trauma
Life is pretty much predictable and you usually have a sense that you are in control. Sometimes life is exciting, and you feel on top of the world as adrenaline courses through your veins. But sometimes there are challenges and stress that also release adrenaline into your bloodstream and get your body ready to take the necessary actions to meet those challenges. Both of these situations are normal and help us to build character and resiliency.
But what if something shocking happens? What if you experience an accident or see a killing? What if you are robbed or see a loved one hurt? Although events such as these are rare, they do happen. And the results are the same for everyone. Whether you’re in combat, or are a policeman, fireman, or EMT, or just a civilian leading a normal life–you are now a victim.
Violence and aggression have a lasting impact on you, whether you realize it or not. While normal challenges and stresses raise the sympathetic nervous system to a certain level that prepares the body to take action, once the stress is handled, the body goes back to a resting state. Soon, you forget about what happened. But when something shocking happens, the nervous system stays activated and always on alert, telling the body it needs to take action.
And a part of you never forgets. Months after the shocking event, the memory remains fresh in your mind. So does the fear, the tension, and the feelings of shock and powerlessness. This sense of powerlessness continues to grow.
Then you may start having nightmares or start thinking about what the other victims felt. While watching TV, you may suddenly have a flashback of the event if you see something similar. Then the images, the smells, and the sounds come rushing back along with the tension and fear. You become more alert, more on guard. Soon, any loud noise or someone moving quickly past you pulls the incident back into your awareness.
So how do you deal with all this? You don’t talk about it and try to avoid the painful thoughts and memories by either forgetting about the event or by pretending it just didn’t happen. You go about life as if everything is okay. This coping strategy may help for a while but not long. Something always comes along that activates the old feelings and thoughts.
This denial strategy also leaves you constantly on alert and tensed, ready to defend yourself from what happened in the past. Soon, you start to feel tired most of the time, forgetful, unable to focus or concentrate, and irritable. Or it may leave you numb with little feelings or emotions, isolated from friends and family, unable to react to situations, and feeling sad or shameful.
But without the denial strategy, you will relive the events over and over again. And this leads to muscle tension, nightmares, panic attacks, anger and rage, and emotional outbursts–all related to the original event.
Both of these ways of coping can also cause muscle pain, lack of sexual desire, fear, amnesia, headaches, ongoing digestive problems, and feelings of guilt. If you have several of these symptoms ongoing over time, it indicates that you have probably developed PTSD–Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
You usually won’t feel all of these symptoms at once. They vary in severity and frequency as the different symptoms popcorn around your body. Sometimes, these symptoms arise months or years after the event. When that happens, you won’t link the cause of the symptoms to the trauma event. You think something else is wrong and seek help for the symptoms but not the cause.
The tendency amongst combat vets, policemen, firemen, and EMT’s is to feel a little ashamed of these feelings and reactions. So they try to handle them by themselves. But all of these feelings come from a normal reaction to an extraordinary event, a shocking event. They come from the body’s response to what happened, not from a character flaw.
Coping does not work. Although the feelings and symptoms may recede for a time, they will come back with a vengeance. They do not get better with time. They either destroy lives, families, and relationships or squash our passions and joy of living.
So if coping doesn’t work, what will? Talking with others, with people who care for you or have been through the same thing, goes a long way in helping you heal. These can be people you love, a counselor, or a support group. But this can be difficult, since social isolation is one of the symptoms of trauma.
A somatic-based treatment is the best way to deal with traumas. This type of treatment deals with the physical and neurological components of trauma and PTSD and can help you move forward in your life. Of those types of treatments, Somatic Experiencing is a particularly effective. Gentle and compassionate, it doesn’t take you back into your trauma to relive it like so many therapies do.
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