Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress
What is a Trauma, as opposed to a Life Crisis
Living in Johannesburg today means that either you, some one close to you or a colleague etc has experienced some sort of traumatic event or has had some exposure to a traumatic situation. You only have to turn on the television to experience this, or read the newspaper.
What makes an event/situation traumatic ?
A LIFE CRISIS involves a major change or shift in your life that is stressful and difficult, but it is usually NOT life threatening or violent. This could be a divorce, moving city, getting retrenched, ending a relationship etc. This can change your life, take time to handle and not be easy to manage. But it is not a trauma.
Trauma is an event or situation that involves a huge shock, and usually involves some threat of harm, injury, violence or possible death – to oneself or to others. The cause could be from “human” factors (people), or from nature and other causes (storms, a bridge collapsing etc).
This could be a robbery, a hijacking, a car accident, rape, witnessing a shooting/physical attack, witnessing violence of any sort. There is usually a fear (or a reality) that you will be hurt or injured, or may even die. But it could also involve seeing a loved one being threatened, harmed or killed. It can include seeing someone who has just been injured or involved in a traumatic event (whether you know that person or not). Trauma can include severe destruction of property, or theft of property (a fire, flood, etc).
These events are “out of the range of normal experience” and would be distressing to almost anyone.
“A reaction of some sort is normal.”
Reactions to Trauma and Post -Traumatic Stress
Reactions can be divided into 4 areas: anxiety and overwhelm, numbing off and denial, physiological / bodily reactions and other general reactions.
You may experience some or all of the following in DIFFERENT DEGREES. We are all different personalities, have different life experiences; we have experienced different traumas, had different support, so will not all experience exactly the same things. Read through and see what you relate to.
Anxiety reactions are an appropriate response to a shocking or horrifying event/ situation. This includes feeling like you are on ‘high’ alert all the time, suspicious of possible threats and protective of yourself. Anxiety levels can rocket, to the point of panic at times. Reminders of what happened and the fear experienced at that time can come flooding back and these are really hard to manage. This can feel really frightening and you can feels as if you are spiralling out of control. Your sleep gets disturbed and you may have nightmares. At some point, too much anxiety makes you feel like you are “getting crazy”.
Numbing off and Denial reactions : when you feel totally overwhelmed (from the above reactions), you may shut down, and stop thinking and feeling; you numb off and feel empty. You cannot just switch the feelings back on. You may feel distanced from everyone and everything. The numbing includes saying ” I am FINE!”, and you avoid talking about what happened and avoid feeling any emotions; you avoid going back to the place where the event happened, and may avoid the people who were involved. At some point, this is protective of yourself, because after trauma you often feel really scared, over whelmed and out of control. But at some point, too much avoidance can become unhealthy.
The anxiety reactions and numbing off reactions listed above, can alternate over periods of time. At some point these are necessary to help you cope and start to process the event/s. But if they persist or the reaction is too extreme, you feel frightened and out of control, then you need to seek professional assistance (trauma debriefing and counselling) as soon as possible.
Physiological and Bodily reactions can include shaking and trembling; your heart pounds from time to time, you experience a startle response (your body jerks in reaction to a loud noise or unexpected movement). You can start to feel aches and pains, headaches and stomach aches. You cannot sleep, and toss and turn. You may feel nauseous.
Other general reactions include feeling helpless and out of control – any traumatic event makes you feel powerless – to some degree. You feel isolated and alone; no-one really understands what you have been through. You feel guilty, churning over the events, and may blame yourself (or others) for putting yourself in that situation; or what you did or did not do; that you did not protect your loved ones, and the people around you… You may feel more super sensitive and reactive, and become increasingly angry and irritable.
Benefits of Trauma Debriefing and Trauma Counselling
Trauma has a profound effect on most people. Untreated this can leave you feeling afraid, angry, bitter and out of control, or just numbed off to the world. Certain approaches to trauma debriefing /Trauma counselling are different to psychotherapy, as there is specific focus and structure, depending on the trauma etc.
Often, receiving trauma debriefing SOON after the event can be extremely helpful. In the least, it can assist you to start to make sense of what happened and WHY you are reacting the way you are. This helps you to feel more in control.
In trauma counselling/debriefing you will:
- Tell your story in a “safe” place – this helps to “offload” and start to get perspective
- Start to make sense of what has happened
- Get some containment for the anxiety, worry and fear, and to start to feel more in control again.
- Learn about the reactions and symptoms, and understand these are to be expected. You are not going crazy.
- Learn to deal with these reactions, and learn to manage your situation.
- Start to find constructive personal meaning out of what has happened; benefit from what you have learnt and the changes that have happened (over time)
- Find a sense of self empowerment and a sense of coping
As the person is usually very vulnerable and struggling, this is a unique time to do this supportive work, and in some cases can prove to be a profound and positive effect in the persons life.
TRAUMA DEBRIEFING AND COUNSELLING: Sharon has worked with many people with trauma counselling and debriefing for many years. Her Master’s Thesis was on The Effects of Multiple Trauma, and how people react to this. Please phone me for more information and to make an appointment.