23February

Living in the Aftermath of Trauma

Tzipporah Gerson-Miller LCSW C-IAYT


Trauma can cause us to question our safety, our values, our relationships, and our core beliefs about the world. It is normal to feel paralyzed, stunned, shut down, and ineffective. It’s normal to ask questions that have no immediate answers.  

Trauma is a response of the human condition and doesn’t speak the language of race, class, religion, or gender. As mass shootings and community violence continue to be on the rise, we must accept that the number of individuals who will suffer from traumatic stress conditions will continue to increase as well.  

Being equipped with trauma-informed language and knowledge regarding common responses to a traumatic event can assist us in feeling more empowered to take the action needed to move towards healing.  Increasing our knowledge of where mental health resources exist can be life-saving.

What many people don’t realize is that trauma can cause mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral reactions. Traumatic events generally involve direct threats to life, bodily integrity, and violence. It can happen as result of an accident, abuse, a crime, death of a loved one, war, natural disaster, a terrorist attack, being diagnosed with a serious illness, or a mass shooting.

According to Dr. Judith Herman, “the common denominator of trauma is a feeling of intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.” With that said, you didn’t have to be at the high school to be a victim of trauma. We are just as vulnerable to vicarious traumatization when we watch the news reports, hear survivors tell their stories, and continue to see media coverage filled with violent images. Here are some key things to remember when addressing the aftermath of trauma. 

1. Trauma can affect a person’s feelings of safety.
Everyone needs to feel safe and secure. It’s a universal truth that every single human being wants to be safe and wants their loved ones to be safe. We need to feel safe with other people and we need to feel safe out in the world. Even if you or your loved ones are not in immediate danger, hearing about others who have been in a violent situation can erode your sense of safety. If you notice an increase in the amount that you worry about your safety or the safety of your loved ones after being exposed to media coverage following a major tragedy, its ok to talk to someone about it.


2. Trauma can compromise a person’s ability to trust others.
Trust and safety are related in the sense that how much you trust others determines how safe you feel in the world. When something that was reliable is disrupted by a traumatic event, it can decrease a person’s ability to trust others. Some people have struggled with trust for a long time. When a traumatic event strikes it can re-trigger these issues even if lots of progress has been made. Seek out support if you notice a sudden inability to trust others.

3. Trauma can leave us feeling powerless and out of control.
No one likes to feel out of control. We need to feel confident in our ability to control our words and our actions so we can affect the environment we live in. Since trauma usually involves being overpowered by external forces, it can leave a person feeling helpless, out of control, and without choice.

Trauma can cause “flashbacks” which are a sudden flooding of emotion when a memory of the event is triggered. Mental health therapists can help a person build emotional regulation skills so that they regain a sense of control.

 

4. Trauma can diminish a person’s self-esteem.           
We all need to feel a sense of self-value, in addition to valuing others and the world around us. Self-value creates belonging and connection. Sometimes trauma can invoke feelings of guilt and shame especially when a person feels as though “they were responsible” “or that “they didn’t do enough.”

It’s normal for positive and negative feelings about yourself and others to fluctuate following a traumatic event. Having a network of supportive relationships can nurture connectivity and reduce the risk of isolation. Keeping in mind that not all people are bad helps to maintain a sense of support. Try to find a support group in your area.

5. Trauma can cause physical symptoms.
Our bodies contain a complex nervous system that is designed to respond to perceived threats in the environment. This is a primitive response that enables us to either fight back or flee to safety depending upon which response is warranted in a given situation.

This is known as the “fight” or “flight” response. Stress hormones known as adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into the bloodstream so that we can expend energy and flee to safety. As a result, the heart rate increases, the muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. Sometimes when a person survives a trauma, if they have a sudden memory of the event, this same physiological process might occur.

This can result in disrupted sleep, appetite, blood sugar imbalances, cardiovascular issues, anxiety, muscle tension, and poor immune system functioning. It is important to practice relaxation strategies to calm the nervous system. Finding a yoga therapist or mental health counselor who specializes in mindfulness-based stress reduction is a great way to learn how to relax if these symptoms continue to occur.



References:
Herman, J.L. (1992). Trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.

Rosenbloom, D. and Williams, M.B. (2010). Life after trauma. The Guilford Press: New York.

If you need further information or support, please make an effort to contact the clinical team at JF&CS to schedule an appointment. Talking to someone can be life-saving. The clinicians at JF&CS are trained in trauma-based therapies to assist individuals in recovering from a traumatic event. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you will recover.