No one is immune to trauma, and it is not something that we can always prevent. Life is traumatic. We cannot really plan for disasters, car accidents, loss, and other traumatic events that tend to take place in our lives. One study found that among the population in the Netherlands, 80.7% of participants had experienced a traumatic event (de Vries and Olff, 2009). The study goes on to state that this rate is comparable to the rate of traumatic events experienced in the in the United States. Human beings, no matter how strong, become vulnerable when they experience high levels of stress. Experiencing a traumatic event does not necessarily mean a person will develop posttraumatic stress, but it makes a person more likely to.
People experience trauma to varying degrees. Regardless of the degree of trauma experienced, the journey through trauma recovery can be an emotionally intense process which can, at times, seem daunting. I have noticed four similarities among people who are working through trauma that I felt would be beneficial to write about, as I see these traits so consistently.
- Feeling alone and vulnerable: I have had people tell me that experiencing a traumatic event leaves them feeling alone and vulnerable. This is very normal. As I mentioned above, no one is immune to trauma, and even people with a strong sense of self and high self-confidence can find themselves feeling as though they are wandering through the dark alone, with no idea where they are going. I cannot stress enough the importance of having a good support network as one works through trauma. It can make all the difference in the world, especially if one is willing to talk about what they are going through and accept support from others. Wandering around in the dark is terrifying, and we all need other people sometimes to help us get through the dark so we can reach the light.
- trigger. I have had many people mention that sometimes they will cry for “no reason” or suddenly become angry or afraid, which confuses and sometimes scares them. It is understandable that this would be confusing and scary, but it is normal and just part of the process of working through trauma. Intense emotions and trauma go hand-in-hand, and part of healing is allowing oneself to experience the emotions that come up. I believe that our brains and bodies are perfectly able to work through trauma, but it takes some pain to get to the healing. Trauma is like having an injury—such as a broken bone. In order to heal properly, that bone may have to be reset, which can be very painful. Through the healing process, the bone might continue to cause the person pain, but as the healing progresses, the bone should hurt less as long as it has the proper support and care. Emotions are usually where the pain is for people with trauma. Being willing to experience emotion, and learning skills to appropriately cope, can make those emotions much more bearable and easier to work through. Like a physical injury, when trauma is receiving the proper treatment and support, it will begin to hurt less.
- Having disturbing thoughts and/or flashbacks of the trauma: I don’t think I have seen one traumatized person who did not have disturbing thoughts, flashbacks, or both about the traumatic event. This is what trauma does: it tends to stick in one’s brain and pop up, uninvited, whenever it wants. This is nothing to be ashamed of, and this is where support can be helpful in the form of trusted loved ones, support groups, and trauma professionals. There are skills available which tend to be quite effective in addressing these thoughts and flashbacks.
- Feeling as though it will never get better: Hopelessness is one of the (unfortunately) common side effects of trauma. The good news is that there are excellent therapeutic interventions that are proven effective in treating trauma. I have treated people who experienced years of severe trauma who have found relief and have been able to have a normal, healthy life. There are several options for treatment, and finding a good therapist who is skilled in treating trauma can make all the difference. It does not matter how long ago the trauma happened or how severe it is. There is always hope for recovery!
Of course, this list is not exclusive.
It is so important that people dealing with trauma know that they are not alone in what they are experiencing and to know there is hope for recovery.
De Vries, G.J., and Olff, M. (2009). The lifetime prevelance of traumatic events and posttraumatic stress disorder in the Netherlands. J Trauma Stress, 22 (4), pp. 259-267.
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