We all probably know someone who's experienced a traumatic event. Or maybe we've experienced one ourselves. When we think about trauma, we often think of events like September 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, or the Colorado theater shooting.
We may consider less publicized events: a loved one's sudden death, a tragic car accident, a sexual assault.
But there are other kinds of traumatic events. A child's experience of his parents' contentious divorce. A young woman’s abortion. A person’s memory of childhood molestation.
A traumatic event is defined as one that’s outside the realm of normal human experience. It’s unexpected and unwanted and brings a feeling of helplessness. Often when trauma occurs, it triggers the brain’s “fight or flight” response, and cells fire off information to our bodies to run, flee, fight, be still, or remain quiet. In these moments, our bodies become hypervigilant in order to survive.
Sometimes people become stuck in their traumatic experiences or reactions. Fear, a normal reaction to trauma, may lead us to drink or use drugs to numb out. The feeling of abandonment may lead us to seek closeness through compulsive sex. The shame of childhood sexual abuse may send us into isolation and withdrawal from family and friends. Traumatic reactions vary from person to person and can include a wide range of dysfunctional, but understandable, behaviors.
The most common symptoms of traumatic stress include depression, anxiety, panic attacks, or extreme mood swings. A person may sleep too much or be plagued by insomnia. Re-experiencing the trauma is also common, in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, or intrusive thoughts; and dissociation may occur as well when a person feels “out of body” or “disconnected”, like driving home and not remembering how you got there. Anger or rage may be present, often directed at the people who are loved the most.
Living through traumatic stress is one of the most painful and hopeless feelings we can have as humans. But we humans are resilient and resourceful beings. The brokenness can be mended, the wound can heal. It requires a skilled helper, effective tools and strategies, the love and support of significant others, and time. Recovery is possible.
“Shrink your world.” This is what I tell clients who are experiencing the aftermath of trauma and in the beginning of recovery. Shrink your world. Simplify your life. Focus only on the three most important tasks you must do today. Get into nature, away from technology and noise. Feel what you feel. Don’t stop the tears. Say a prayer. Simplify your life. Shrink your world. Actually, this would be helpful for us all.