Leaving death and destruction in their path, such events undermine our necessary denial that life is predictable, that children can be safe and that we can be in control.
For a time, we are left wounded, shaken, vulnerable and afraid. Caught in the traumatic moment, we fill in the future unknowns with expectations of more of the same trauma so that next time we will be ready.
Eventually, despite the memory, the extreme loss, the bodily injuries and even the fear, we want our lives back, we want our children to play, and we want to smile…
We need to find a way to survive and at times even succeed with life’s uncertainties.
Here are six strategies that may begin to answer that need. Some you may already use. Some you may want to consider.
Validation of True Self
There is considerable evidence that exercise benefits our mental health. Research suggests that in addition to improving memory, lifting mood, moderating depression, and reducing attention fatigue, exercise is a significant stress reducer.
Whether you are a varsity player, a daily walker, a gym rat or an avid golfer, it is likely that the exercise you do helps you psychologically as well as physically. What happens when you get injured?
In most cases physical injury happens in the two minutes we never see coming. It is physically and psychologically disruptive because it not only involves physical pain and concern about intervention and recovery; it reminds us of the unpredictability of life, and the reality of our vulnerability. For athletes, as well as those determined to exercise, it is a loss that insults our sense of self as well as our sense of mastery.
“ I can’t be injured, we are in the semi-finals. I have to play!”
“ I just got the motivation and the routine going and now I break my ankle?”
“ What will I do if I can’t golf?”
How Do You Proceed?
No matter what anyone says in the first hours, days or week of an injury, it won’t feel right.
“ So You Won’t Run Anymore- You will Do Something Else!”
“ Don’t Worry—You will be back.”
It is difficult to suddenly adjust to the loss of something that has added value to your life and it is also difficult to suddenly believe you will be ok, when you don’t feel ok. But it does get better…
What seems impossible starts to become possible when you realize there are many ways to reduce stress if you are able to focus on healing, open options, risk possibilities, and draw upon your resiliencies.
Five Ways To Reduce Stress
Whether in the past or the present, a traumatic event experienced by one or all members of a family, impacts the entire family system. Be it the violent loss of a child, the devastation from natural disaster, the injury of a combat vet or the suicide of a family member, trauma assaults the lives of all family members and the legacy they share.
How Does a Family Cope?
One of the most important things a family can do in the aftermath of a traumatic event is to find a way over the days, months and even years “to speak about what happened.”
All families engage in story telling. Around the dinner table, in car pools, at holidays, in the middle of the night, family members share the day-to-day experiences of big and small events in their lives. Through the stories they tell, families create the fabric of their life and their legacy.
Why is it Difficult for Families to Speak About Trauma?
Family Protection Through Silence and Avoidance
Given this impact of trauma, the inclination of many family members is to protect each other by not speaking about the trauma.In an effort to spare others from more pain, prevent the stirring of feelings, avoid contaminating with traumatic memories, or burdening the family with grief, both adults and children disavow history, deny feelings and often avoid connection. The myth is that “if we don’t talk about it we can live beyond it.”
Historically we know that the opposite is true. As trauma expert, Cathy Caruth says, trauma “will out” in one way or another in spite of being silenced or denied. What can’t be said must be carried and acted out.
“Is Anyone Else Angry?”
Trauma theorists tell us that while traumatic events are in themselves physically and emotionally assaultive, it is often the emotions suffered after the smoke clears and the media goes home that become painful and disruptive to our recovery. One of these is anger.
Anger in the aftermath of a traumatic event, be it the loss of a child, the destruction of one’s home, a life-threatening diagnosis or the sequel to combat stress is a common and complex response. It can be experienced as a physiological state, an emotion, a way of thinking, a behavioral response or a combination of these.
Understanding some of the feelings and dynamics that underscore anger after trauma may be an important step in your journey forward.
Anger as Residual of Fight/Flight Response
It is to our advantage that our biological arousal system goes into survivor mode in face of danger causing an increase in heart rate, rapid shallow breathing, cold sweats, tingling muscular tension and often-antagonistic behavior.
The problem is that when the danger has passed, our body often remains in a state of hyperarousal, leaving us reacting with anger to what would ordinarily be mildly distressing stimuli.
Because this is a physically driven anger, we need to work from the body out to bring it down. We need to re-set our body rhythms by moving, sleeping and eating well. Moving in any way (exercise, walking, re-building, cleaning, physically helping friends) is crucial.
One widow, who told me she was mad at God after 9/11, started walking and didn’t stop until the tears and …
Disaster and trauma studies often focus on identifying the incidence of PTSD as the sequel to traumatic events.
Early interventions with those affected after a disaster or traumatic event increasingly utilize psycho-education to clarify and normalize common post-traumatic stress reactions and coping strategies.
While mentioned as a possible response, the high incidence of depression after trauma is less delineated and often goes unrecognized by those suffering.
Depression Occurs after Trauma:
Both major depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occur frequently following traumatic exposure, both as separate disorders and concurrently.
Depression is the most common disorder suffered in conjunction with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Depression is nearly three to five times more likely in those with PTSD than those without PTSD.
Be it the toy truck, the pasta bowl, the piano, the silver earrings or the old books, we all have stuff because psychologically we need stuff.
Sartre holds that “to have” (along with “to do” and “to be”) is one of the three categories of human existence…
Wired for Stuff
Famous psychologist, Donald Winnicott, tells us that long before we could verbalize the need, we transitioned from merged oneness with mother to “transitional objects,” the favorite blanket, pacifier, stuffed animal, or a piece of cloth that was attributed a special value as a means of making the shift from mother to genuine object relationships.
That said, our relationship with objects, “our stuff” never stops. It unfolds throughout our life; reflecting who we are, where we are, whom we are connected with and what we need to be ourselves.
One of the reasons we find it easier to ask others rather than ourselves, “Do you really need this stuff?” is that the actual value of anything is primarily a function of our investment in it and/or our interaction with it. We give “stuff” value and meaning.
It would seem that hope, which is broadly defined as an emotional state that promotes the belief in a positive outcome, is in inherent in human nature.
Reflections of the importance of hope are found in early mythology, religion, philosophy and literature.
Pandora, although forbidden, opened the box given to her by Zeus, and in a moment, all the curses were released into the world and all the blessing escaped and were lost- except one: hope.
“To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see.” ― The King James Version of the Bible
“Hope is a waking dream.” –Aristotle
“Where there is no hope, it is incumbent on us to invent it.” -Albert Camus
“Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops — at all.” -Emily Dickinson
Clearly we need hope, but even as we embrace it we often wonder – Does hope really make a difference? Is it myth, fiction, collective denial?
There is actually increasing scientific evidence that hope changes us psychologically and physiologically – that it makes a difference.
Many people face a traumatic event in adult life. Be it a serious car accident, combat, rape, a natural disaster or the loss of a child, people are often confronted with a horrific event that threatens death or serious injury to themselves or someone else, or involves the traumatic loss of a friend or loved one.
While such trauma is in itself physically and emotionally assaultive, trauma theorist Robert Stolorow proposes that beyond the actual event, it is the emotions suffered after the event that become the unbearable emotional pain of trauma.
Stolorow’s contribution to the field is his articulation of these feelings in a way that becomes an invaluable resource for validation.
In the preceding blog, we considered the importance of recognizing medical illness as psychological trauma.
Diagnosed with a rare disease, Stevens Johnson Syndrome, at age thirteen, Michele journeyed through two decades of undiagnosed PTSD to eventual recognition, recovery and support of many as the founder of www.healmyptsd.com.
What she offers in lessons learned is of value for parents of children who have faced illness, as well as adults who wonder how they will ever reclaim their bodies, heal their sense of self and take a new self into the future.
Michele, your journey from illness started when you were only thirteen. Parents suffer so much when they see their children suffer. How did your parents respond?
My parents were phenomenal! They were there in a very active way. Their presence next to me, their translation of what was happening to me, their role in helping the staff understand me in a certain way were all crucial to my safety and comfort.
In this era of advanced medical detection and intervention, the medical care of patients and the reduction of mortality for life threatening illness has never been greater. Against this backdrop of success, however, what is often overlooked by professionals, family, even patients, is the experience of medical illness as psychological trauma.