It was a beautiful, calm evening after a long, tiring day of work. I had driven down that same poorly lit road hundreds of times to the point that I knew every pothole. As I began to relax, the events from the day started rolling through my mind, and the part of my brain that controls driving the car got switched to auto-pilot. Then, the unexpected. As another vehicle crossed the intersection, I hit on the brakes as fast as I could, but it was too late to avoid the collision.
Even though this happened almost 10 years ago I can still vividly remember the sound of the crash, the pain in my back and neck, not being able to breathe for what felt like an eternity, and then the comforting voice of a man at my window saying that help was on the way. My car was totaled, but I thankfully walked away from the crash with only a couple of scratches and a few weeks of whiplash recovery.
“The truth is that not one single person is immune to trauma.”
Was this experience emotionally traumatic to me? I don’t think so. Could it have been traumatic to me or someone else in the same situation? Definitely! See, it’s not circumstances that determine events as traumatic, but rather your own subjective experiences of the events. The more helpless and/or frightened you feel, the more likely it is that you can be traumatized.” [i]
No matter where you’re from, your sex, what your social status is, or your intelligence, the truth is that not one single person is immune to trauma.
So, what exactly is trauma? According to the American Psychological Association, “Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” [ii]
There are three types of trauma:
Furthermore, depending on the nature, a traumatic life experience can disrupt our day-to-day lives in such ways that it may change the way we see the world around us, our sense of security, our responses to other triggering events, the way we think about ourselves, the future, and even our ability to trust others. If not processed in a healthy way, it may also produce unhelpful thoughts and coping skills, such as avoidance and isolation, hypervigilance, addictions, controlling behaviors, self-harm, and suicidal ideations. These will often be accompanied by numerous biological changes, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, numbness, anxiety, fear, anger, guilt and shame, just to name a few. Please keep in mind that these are all normal reactions towards abnormal events!
Thinking of these symptoms and all the effects of having gone through difficult life experiences can be very overwhelming - and rightly so. The good news is that there are several action steps that you can take to start the healing process and develop coping skills.
How do you start to recover and build resiliency?
One of the first instinctual behaviors that a trauma survivor will display is characterized by isolating from people and avoiding the outside world. This may be due to the belief that if circumstances can be controlled, tragedies can also be kept from happening and being experienced; or it may be due to the erroneous belief that the individual is now different, that no one would understand, or that they (along with their symptoms) are a burden. It has been proven, though, that there is healing power in meaningful connections. Having a support system will enable you to obtain valuable resources, emotional support, and objectivity for when things get tough. Go to community events, attend church, and do normal activities with others, even when you don’t “feel like it.”
If you talk about your experience with people you trust (a friend or family member), this will not only help you confront and process your pain, but will also give you more opportunities to feel heard and understood. You may even find out that you are not alone and that others have shared similar experiences. If it’s still too hard, you don’t need to talk. You can write it all out in a journal or express your feelings through something creative (e.g., drawing, etc.). The bottom line is try not to hold it in.
Give yourself a chance back to normalcy and feel physically and mentally better by exercising as regularly as possible, getting appropriate rest, eating well balanced meals and avoiding addictive and harmful substances (e.g., alcohol and drugs). You can also increase your life satisfaction by including activities that you may look forward to, such as reading a good book or developing a new hobby.
Grounding techniques are usually helpful for coping with flashbacks, dissociation, and upsetting thoughts and feelings. It consists of using your five senses (touch, sight, sound, taste, smell) to connect you with the present moment rather than being overcome by the internal distress. For example, you may pet an animal, describe to yourself what you see in your environment, listen to some classical music, bite into a lemon, or smell a candle. (Click for more examples or exercises). These activities will help your body and mind to respond appropriately and adjust to triggers and will help keep your emotions from taking over your reasoning. Sometimes physiological responses to distress are unavoidable and very challenging, but you can still learn to control how you deal with them!
“You are not dirty, incompetent, or worthless.”
Avoid the “should’ve-could’ve-would’ve-guilt-tripping-self-condemning-self-harming” routine. No, you didn’t know, and you couldn’t have known it was going to happen. The way you reacted was what made sense for you at the time it was happening (whether it was a fight, flight, or freeze reaction or a conscious decision). No, the traumatic event/experience is not your fault. You are not dirty, incompetent, or worthless. No, you do not deserve further punishment, nor need to continue to hurt yourself or perpetuate the pain that was already caused. You’ve been through enough! Accept help, do enjoyable things, take a break, and speak to yourself as if you were speaking to a best friend. Learn to forgive.
This is an important component for treatment, as a therapist will have a skilled and objective listening ear, without judgement, and with the techniques necessary to get you through unpleasant, intrusive memories and distorted thoughts. They will help you prepare for triggers and prompt you to reframe your experience at an appropriate pace.
This may remind you of all the things you can do and of the positive attributes you do have. It can also help challenge your feelings of helplessness and powerlessness.
Our brains often have a way of selecting only negative things to think about, indulging in a cognitive error called negative mental filter. Have some helpful, truthful, and logical facts and phrases written on some flashcards, keeping them handy for when you start having fears and doubt. These can include inspirational quotes, spiritually uplifting promises, such as Bible promises, or words of affirmation that have helped in the past.
“The first step to overcoming trauma is to accept that it happened.”
Finally, if you have suffered any kind of trauma and you feel engulfed by the past and all the chaos that it provoked (or still does) in your life, all the pain, sleepless nights, or all kinds of losses, broken relationships, or all of the above – I do not want to sound insensitive or harsh, but here goes a sobering reality check – take a deep breath and read this slowly: IT HAPPENED, and YOU SURVIVED IT.
Now let that sink in for a minute and read it again if you need to. That’s right, friend. You’ve had a horrific, life-shattering experience, and you lived through it. The first step to overcoming trauma is to accept that it happened. YOU ARE ALIVE, and you can and must choose whether you will let your story overcome you for the rest of your life, (not recommended), or if you will let your painful story teach you and empower you to redefine (for the better) your value, your character, your purpose, and your priorities; empower you to love yourself and others more deeply, and to make a positive impact in other’s lives. The road to recovery may be long and hard, but as everything else in life, it only requires one step at a time – starting right now.
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[i] Emotional and Psychological Trauma. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/coping-with-emotional-and-psychological-trauma.htm.
[ii] Trauma. (2019). Retrieved September 28, 2019, from https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/.