We are never really prepared when something bad happens in our life. Really, most of us go through our lives in a kind of denial — believing that disasters, tragedies and misfortune really only happen to other people. Car crashes, physical and sexual assaults of all types and degrees, witnessing violence firsthand, are all obvious things that our society sees as a “trauma”.
But us humans can also be significantly emotionally affected by other kinds of negative things too, ones that we may not think of as trauma. A difficult long-term relationship ending, being verbally or emotionally abused or bullied, high levels of conflict with a spouse or child, losing a job or even a career, failing at or being “kicked out” of a school or college, becoming very physically ill or discovering that you have a chronic illness, or even being separated from or losing a loved one to death can all be seen as forms of trauma. When people do experience an emotionally overloading, distressing event it can affect them in many deep, emotional and even physical ways.
Initially, the trauma, regardless of the type, may cause the person to feel strong emotions of all kinds including fear, anxiety, sadness, or a sense of helplessness or weakness — or combinations of these strong emotions. Trauma results from experiencing an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds a person’s emotional ability to cope. What seriously affects one person may be water off a duck’s back to another. So really, it’s important not to judge others reaction to a traumatic event, as we really don’t know what its like to live in their skin.
Some people (probably many), experience what’s known as “Psychological Shock” or what doctors would call an “Acute Stress Reaction” after a trauma happens.
Psychological Shock/Acute Stress Reaction can emerge anywhere from immediately after, up to a month after the traumatic event happens. People will often feel high levels of anxiety and/or depression/sadness, and sometimes what are called “dissociative symptoms”, which is feeling very “numb” or “empty” or “disconnected” from their surroundings and a sense of being disconnected from their own self. People sometimes describe it as feeling like they are underwater and everything they take in is kind of muffled.
We may also feel like we can’t “think clearly” like we are experiencing a “brain fog”. Maybe that our memory isn’t working or that we feel that it’s all a “jumble” and we can’t sort through the complicated mess of our thoughts and emotions. We may also lose interest in the things in our life that we would normally be interested in. We may find ourselves bowing out of opportunities to go out or no longer be interested in our favourite TV show or reading.
Probably the reason for the dissociative and cognitive symptoms is that our mind is trying to protect itself from the perceived trauma-threat and effectively and affectively ‘disconnects” itself from the world to “calm itself” and get some relief. Think of it like a computer becoming overloaded and slowing down or even crashing.
Other symptoms may be physical, like a weak appetite for food and/or sex, insomnia, an upset stomach or loose stools, muscle tension or a sore neck/back or headaches or other aches and pains. Our body responds to trauma in many different ways that we may not even be aware of! Here is a great book that looks exactly at that issue: The Body Keeps the Score
Everyone deals with trauma in their own unique way. There is really no “right” or “wrong” way to respond to an emotionally overloading or terrifying event. Don’t let anyone, not even yourself, tell you that you should respond in a certain way or on a certain timeline. We all experience trauma and heal differently. Having said that, here are some initial steps you can take to start to heal and regain control of your life:
Be Gentle With and Don’t Judge Yourself Too Harshly
One of the things that may happen when we are suffering the after-effects of a trauma, regardless of the kind, is that we may be feeling overwhelmed with strong and painful emotions — sometimes when we’re feeling strong emotions like depression or worry or fear, we may look inside ourselves for the answer to our suffering and unfortunately some people are then actually overly critical of themselves and they may start to blame themselves for the trauma that happened:
“If only I hadn’t been there, done, that thing or acted in that way… the bad thing probably wouldn’t have happened”
Sometimes an emotional trauma will cause us to self-blame up the wazoo! Realize though, that bad things can happen to anyone and blaming ourselves really just tears us down even more emotionally and may make healing even harder! Even if we are partly responsible for the trauma, like perhaps we were driving a bit too carelessly and crashed, it still doesn’t help to put all the blame on ourselves — you have to tell yourself…. we’re all human and sometimes we make mistakes or bad decisions! Stopping the self-blame and trying to explore self-forgiveness are crucial to beginning the recovery and healing process.
Try to Accept That You Are Having Negative Feelings
You may be feeling super strong and overwhelming feelings of worry, shock, anger, sadness, panic or frustration. In the moment, you may feel that you must totally avoid all your strong emotions and hide! But, whether you accept or push them down, your feelings are real, and for now, at least recognizing that they are there is probably necessary for starting the healing process. Of course, you don’t have to explore them too deeply if it’s just too painful right now — but perhaps it’s a good start to just begin to recognize that we are having these strong emotional feelings for a reason. It’s important to realize that “they are what they are” and that maybe most importantly, they are telling us that we need to take care of ourselves better during this stressful time.
Although recognizing them for what they are is important, you probably also shouldn’t dwell on your negative emotions — if you find yourself deeply stuck in your negative emotions and you find yourself repeating negative thoughts over and over again in your mind, you may want to seek the help of a professional like a psychologist who can help you through sorting through your emotions and feelings at this difficult time.
Start to Challenge the Helplessness… Even a Little Bit
A traumatic event may cause you to feel quite hopeless, helpless and maybe even some days, emotionally out of control. To start recovering from the event though, it is super important that you try to start to challenge these feelings of helplessness on some level. You can do this by taking some kind of action. Being proactive – even in small ways – will help you start on the healing journey.
Start by doing something, anything — maybe start to see a therapist, go out for a bit with your friends, maybe concentrate on getting fresh air and exercise or make sure you are eating regularly with good food. Consider volunteering for a cause that’s important to you or if that’s too much… even on helping a friend or neighbour in your life that could use a hand. Doing these kinds of things will really help you feel stronger and more in control of your environment. The important thing is to challenge the helplessness on some level and start to re-engage with your life and the world around you.
Connect with Others
Often after a trauma, it is really common for people to feel like they want to withdraw from the people around them. They may also avoid social activities and prefer to “stay safe at home”. They may feel a need to isolate themselves and pull away from their friends and loved ones — right when it actually may be more important for them to try and keep connected.
Connecting with others is really essential for starting your recovery. Though you may not feel up to going to a huge gathering or a loud concert or a nightclub like you once did, perhaps a simple connection and dialogue with a close friend or relative. Science has even shown us that making human connections will actually trigger hormones that relieve symptoms of trauma, stress, anxiety and depression!
You don’t even have to talk about the traumatic event with your friends and loved ones — instead simply spending time with them can help you feel some sense of human connection and even provide a sense of “normalcy”. Of course though, if you feel like you need to talk about what happened and about your overwhelming feelings, it may be essential to reach out to those closest to you, those who love and support you — to be brave and ask for their support. You may also want to explore and see if there are trauma-related support groups near you, so you can be around others who know what you are going through and can provide support.
And lastly, and especially if you are feeling really overwhelming emotional symptoms that are really affecting your daily life — you may want to consider seeking help from a psychologist who is equipped to help and support people who have experienced a traumatic event. They can help you manage your emotions and provide you with the support and tools to get your life back on track. You don’t have to suffer from the painful after-effects of your trauma all alone.
This blog is not intended as medical advice, treatment or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a mental health or medical professional.