Dealing with the Aftermath of Trauma

Larry Beall, Ph.D.

 

What is Trauma?  No matter who you are or how much you try to avoid it, trauma happens to all of us and effects our lives.  Why?  Because trauma, much like change, is a part of life.   Trauma can be a seemingly harmless event or a dramatic occurrence that shakes our foundation and changes the course of our lives, as frequently occurs if you live or serve in Iraq.  Trauma is basically any event that causes us to feel helpless and terrified.

Trauma can be experienced in a physical or psychological way.  Physical trauma is like an injury to the head or a broken bone:  it effects your physical body.  Psychological trauma is an injury to your thoughts and feelings:  it effects your emotions.  Regardless of the type of trauma, symptoms or signs of trauma are often felt by the trauma survivor.  

Trauma can occur as a “ primary trauma” or “secondary trauma.”  Primary trauma is when the event occurs to you personally.  An example would be if you are attacked by someone or are in a car accident.   Secondary trauma is when the harmful event occurs to someone you care about or to other individuals in general.  Secondary trauma would be caused by seeing your sister harmed or by witnessing a terrible terrorist attack on a country.  Both types cause you to feel trauma.  Symptoms that you may have been experiencing (panic feelings, racing heart, nightmares during the night) are a result of feeling trauma.  The important thing to remember is these symptoms are normal!  You are having a normal response to an abnormal situation or experience.

If you find yourself remembering trauma you have experienced in your life, don’t be alarmed.  It is normal to have memories of trauma.  It may be helpful to write those events down and describe how they affected you.  For example, you may have experienced your dog being hit by a car.  You would then write, “I saw a car hit my dog.” Then you would describe your feeling as you saw the event: maybe you felt shock or disbelief.  Please allow yourself here to write some feelings about a traumatic event in your life: ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 
Life’s experiments are great fun.  This is but another one. 
— Rudyard Kipling
 

 

What Are the Symptoms of Trauma?

A symptom is something you can see or feel that tells you something may not be quite right.  It is the body’s way of signaling us that something needs to be taken care of.  The following is a list of common trauma symptoms.  Mark any that you are experiencing or have experienced.

___ Pictures of the bad thing that happened keep coming back to your mind

___ Nightmares or scarey dreams

___ Feeling like the bad thing that happened is happening again

___ Seeing things that remind you of the bad thing that happened and being affected by it.

___ Trying to avoid people, thoughts or situations that remind you of the bad thing that happened.

___ Losing interest or enjoyment in things you used to enjoy

___ Can’t remember important parts of the bad thing that happened

___ Feeling separate or not close to people you used to like being around

___ Can’t feel the feelings you used to have like happiness, love and affection

___ Feeling like it is hard to be still-agitation and restlessness

___ It is hard to think about one thing:  your mind is all over the place

___ Trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep

___ Getting angry easily

___ Feeling jumpy or edgy

 

Why Am I Affected by Things That Don’t Seem to Bother Other People?

As a human being you have survival responses, just like wild animals who spend most of their time looking for something to eat or trying to avoid being eaten.   They must be constantly alert to danger in order to survive.  Humans are also compelled to survive in their own way.

Scientists have found that when someone is traumatized, chemicals in the brain stop working properly and cause increased sensitivity to their surroundings.  This causes the individual to become  hyper-reactive or hyper-sensitive.  When people are in this state of hyper-arousal, they become very sensitive to various stressors, and their reactions are magnified.  In fact, people who are survivors of trauma are generally hypersensitive to danger long after they have been traumatized.

 

 
You will not grow if you sit in a beautiful garden, but you will grow if you are sick, if you are in pain, if you experience losses, and if you do not put your head in the sand but take the pain and learn to accept it, not as a curse or punishment but as a gift to you with a very, very specific purpose.
— Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
 

 

Triggers

Stressors and triggers make us feel the original trauma.  These are a danger signal to the trauma survivor, to activate the body into a  “fight or flight” reaction.  The alarm sends messages through the body to activate survival  systems.  These systems include blood pressure, gastro-intestinal, skin, brain chemicals, memory, and emotions:  just about our whole body!    If there is no real danger, the arousal of these systems causes your body to become an enemy instead of a friend, and you literally “stew in your own juices,” all wound up with no place to go.

Triggers can be noises, smells or seeing a situation which reminds us of the harmful event.  Triggering activates the emotional feeling or response we experienced in the original traumatic experience(s).  Our minds are able to connect this similar situation to the past memory which causes the present feeling.  Here is list of common “triggers:"

___loud noises—yelling or cars backfiring

___discussion about something bad that happened to someone

___feeling physically vulnerable—such as when changing clothes in a public place

___certain music, types of dancing, specific works of art

___certain smells or textures

___sexual contact

___certain times of the day

___certain physical characteristics—long hair, beards, old age, bald head, etc.

___certain activities—bathing, visiting a doctor, driving

___exposure to weapons—knives, guns, clubs

___certain movies

___pressure to perform in a certain way

___certain anniversaries-birthday, accident, rape, death

___sights, sounds, feelings

 

When your brain is “triggered” it also stops working as an information processing instrument. Instead, the messages it sends make no sense to the rest of the body.   Your thinking becomes cloudy and numb, you are easily distracted, and lose time because of daydreaming. .  When the trauma is severe enough, many people find they are unable to concentrate or remember what they are doing.

 

 
A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us and possibilities only dimly imagined.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery
 

 

Psychological Disorders

Traumatized people often experience psychological disorders (disorders affecting the mind.)  Read through the following list of disorders that traumatized people often experience.  Mark the ones that have caused you trouble in the past or trouble you now:

___Rage is commonly associated with trauma.  Rage is excessive anger resulting from repressed psychological pain and is a survival response.  This is generated by the limbic system in the brain.

___Excessive Aggression can often be an expression of powerful feelings like rage that cannot be expressed in any other way.  Aggression is dangerous if it gets out of control.  If this is one of your symptoms, you need to seek treatment right away.

___Impulsiveness is the tendency to act without thinking.  It is also a common symptom of trauma because of the powerful impulses and feelings. 

___Inability to Focus Attention and/or Poor Concentration is due to the distracting thoughts and feelings associated with the trauma.  It is very difficult to concentrate and stay on task when unpleasant thoughts continue to invade your mind or when your feelings are on a roller coaster.

___Behavioral Problems like breaking the law, risky activities, drug use, and sexual indiscretions are common in trauma survivors.  These problems are often associated with strong feelings like rage, aggression, being impulsive, and inability to concentrate.

___Anxiety and Agitation are common symptoms in trauma survivors.  Trauma generates anxiety.  The symptoms of anxiety, which include  restlessness, worries, sleeplessness, panic, fears, obsessiveness, and extreme caution are frequently part of the trauma symptoms reported.

___Depression is almost always associated with trauma.  There are several reasons for this, but mainly it is due to the chemical changes trauma causes in the brain and the reduction of Serotonin levels.  Trauma survivors also have a tendency to turn anger inward and blame themselves for the trauma rather than placing the responsibility where it should be (on the perpetrator of their trauma or circumstances beyond their control.)

___Numbing is the “shutting down” of  the mental and emotional system.  It is an unconscious way the mind protects you from being overwhelmed with the trauma.    

___Panic Attacks & Avoidance Behaviors are triggered by anything that reminds you of the trauma.  This is the reason that panic attacks can occur unpredictably without any association with the trauma.  When the panic attacks begin, avoidance of people and places once enjoyed soon follows.

___Distrust & Paranoia towards people often develops with trauma.  This is especially true if the trauma experienced  involved sexual abuse in childhood or intentional injuries inflicted by others.  Basic beliefs about what people are supposed to be can be shattered, causing suspicion of even well-meaning people.

___Flashbacks & Re-experiencing Symptoms are a frequent part of post-trauma problems.  The human brain stores the trauma experience in great detail and produces it, usually without warning.  Researchers believe this is the brains way of trying to get rid of the unwanted experience.

___Obsessive-Compulsive Tendencies are associated with trauma due to the anxiety.  Trauma creates a sense of loss of control and one way to regain it is to increase strictness of schedules, rules and orderliness.  Thoughts and behaviors can be repeated endlessly in an attempt to control what feels out of control.

___Somatic Complaints involve bodily pains and discomforts, such as headaches, gastro-intestinal problems (stomach aches, heartburn, diarrhea or constipation), body aches, fatigue and heart palpitations. The strain on your body from traumatic stress also weakens your immune system, making you more vulnerable to sickness and disease.

___Eating Disorders are often traced to traumatic experiences.  Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia generally begin in the attempt to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the sense of terror experienced in the trauma.  It is the attempt to gain personal control.

 

___Sleep Disturbances are common with trauma. One reason is the mind attempts to work through the trauma in your dreams which come out as nightmares.  Also, trauma generates anxiety which has symptoms that can keep you awake. Poor sleep worsens most of your other symptoms and lowers your performance.

___Self-Esteem is affected by trauma. You are not yourself, and negative thinking about yourself can grow leaving you less able to do what you were once able to do.

 

 
Difficulties can stimulate us to our greatest achievements. A wounded deer leaps the highest.   
— Emily Dickenson
 

 

 

 
 
Be of good cheer. Do not think of today’s failures, but of the success  that may come tomorrow. You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere; and you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.
— Helen Keller