After the Trauma …

6 Dec

In “Trauma or a Lesser Cousin,” we introduced our readers to the concept of trauma and the effects it has on the nervous system. Today we will explore the stages of recovery from traumatic stress and how you can boost your own resilience. In our next article, we will talk about the “cousins” we fer to in our initial article.

The shock of experiencing a trauma is the body’s way of responding to a horrific event. Moving beyond shock into resilience is a process that not only restores our mental, physical, and spiritual health, it also strengthens us to meet everyday challenges.

The first step in recovery is acknowledging that the event occurred and accepting the experience per se. At this stage it is often helpful to be part of a group of persons who may have experienced the event, each individual in his/her own way. The sharing of how the event went down and what each person’s emotions were (and are) can be helpful and comforting. This stage can sometimes reframe the event in wider terms, permitting us to view the event from others’ perspective as well as our own.

Elisabeth Kuebler Ross is famous for outlining the stages of recovery when a person receives the news that s/he is dying. The anger stage and the sadness/depression stages apply to the experience of trauma as well. Shock sometimes gives way to anger or even outrage: “How could that have happened to him, to her, to me?” The nervous system is responding with the energy of anger.

At another point in time we may feel sadness, deep bottomless sadness. It is helpful to “tend” our sadness so that it does not devolve into depression — an energy of inertia — which robs us of the opportunity to move toward resilience. Yet we need to acknowledge the sadness, to give it expression in our journal either in words or in “drawings.” These can be the colors and forms which a small child would use to express on paper how s/he is feeling.

Both with anger and with sadness, it is helpful to have a guide to go with us into the wilderness, or better said, the wildness.

You will find that sometimes what you hear or see may trigger memories of the traumatic event, and you will find yourself momentarily thrust back into that horrible, timeless moment. You may also find that you are behaving in a hyper-vigilant way. If, for instance, you had been accosted in the darkness of a black alleyway — or worse yet, raped in such a place or during a “date” — then your nervous system may be on high alert whenever you go out into an unknown place or when it is becoming dark. The same is true if you felt during your childhood that you could never please your parent. Then you may now be on high alert trying to please your boss, your spouse, or whomever. If your spouse was unfaithful to you in a certain way, you may find that whenever you see or hear or even smell something that reminds you of that experience, it is as if your body is trembling. Your body is re-expressing the trauma which you experienced earlier.

We were all innocent children at one time, and we may currently have our own children whom we are currently raising. Trauma strikes children especially deeply, because they cannot typically identify or express what they are feeling and they cannot “digest” traumatic events. Sometimes it is also beyond an adult’s coping capacity to deal with a particular traumatic event which has occurred in the recent past or many years ago.

I will present three ways to help yourself, two of which you can at times pursue in the privacy of your own space. The other will require the aid of a therapist.

  1. Breathing techniques: Breathe in through your nose as deeply as you can. Then purse your lips and breathe out slowly through your mouth. With practice you can make the out-breath quite long, and this is calming. You may also want to add visualization to this deep breathing technique. I like the image of the wave swelling out in the ocean on the in-breath and then its breaking and spilling onto the shore with the out-breath.
  2. Autogenic healing: This involves meditation and progressive relaxation, among other practices such as yoga, tai chi, and so forth. Listen to a number of CDs to find one which really speaks to you in that “still, silent voice” to calm your nervous system. There are a number of CDs designed to provide bilateral stimulation via earbuds to both sides of the brain. You may also want to try progressive relaxation beginning with your toes and moving through each body part, saying to yourself, “My toes are heavy and warm” three times before moving on to the next body part.
  3. The third technique, administered by a trained professional, is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). EMDR moves you beyond traditional talk therapy because it heals the nervous system by potentially combining five modalities for healing: (a) the mental images of the traumatic event; (b) thoughts that plague you about the event; (c) emotions with which you invest the remembered event; (d) physical sensations called forth by the memory of the event; and (e) the belief you have about yourself due to the consequences of the traumatic event.

Since traumatic events abound in our world today — in our own lives, in those of our friends and neighbors, in our communities, and in the whole world — we are literally surrounded by trauma. If you find yourself “on pins and needles,” being hyper-vigilant, or experiencing racing thoughts or heartbeat, you may be experiencing traumatic stress (or one of its lesser cousins).

Don’t be tough on yourself — that is the last thing you need to do. Instead take time to reflect and write a short daily log, containing your thoughts and feelings and any bodily responses to your surroundings. In that way you will discover whether you may indeed be a victim of post-traumatic stress.

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