Recovering from the Trauma of this Past Year

Now that we are not only seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but we are almost there and about to step out into that light, what will re-entry actually be like? Will it be all sunshine and happiness? I was on a Zoom call with a group of friends who have been checking in with one another weekly over the past year. These folks of various ages, genders, and living situations have all been experiencing some form of quarantine or lifestyle restrictions during this period. And now, most have been or are in the process of being vaccinated and are starting to make plans for going out into the world again.

So I was surprised by our conversation this week. I was expecting optimistic chatter about the future, but instead every person, including myself, relayed similar stories about experiencing difficulty sleeping and having nightmares about being helpless against some menacing force or impossible circumstance. These are reactions that people typically have to trauma. This made me aware of what most of us are going to experience as we get to the end of this tunnel and step away from one of the most distressing times in our lives.

There have been many different kinds of trauma during this pandemic. There has been the “single blow trauma” of a singular event, such as the death of a loved one. There has been “repeated blow trauma,” such as the ongoing distress and suffering that hospital workers treating Covid have been exposed to. There has been an increase in domestic abuse (including verbal, emotional, and physical abuse toward spouses, children, and family members), which has resulted in increased trauma for both the victims and the witnesses. There has been the trauma of financial insecurity and the reality or threat of losing jobs, homes, and going hungry. There has been the pressure from increased practical demands in our daily lives: working from home, caring for and educating our children, living in isolation. And there has been the emotional impact that these have had on us as we try to navigate this challenging life for the most part removed from the family and friends we rely on for love and support.

Whatever type of trauma each of us may have suffered from, understanding what trauma is, how people react to it, and how to recover from it will help us in making the transition back into our lives again.

What is trauma?

A traumatic experience is any event in life that causes a threat to a person’s safety and potentially places their life or the lives of others at risk. In these situations, the traumatized person responds with intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Their high levels of emotional, psychological, and physical distress temporarily disrupt their ability to function normally in day-to-day life.

There are no general determinants of what constitutes a traumatic event. Rather, each individual’s experience establishes whether an event is or is not traumatic. The trauma is based on the survivor’s reaction to something that was felt by that person to be a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity. 

Common responses to trauma:

  • feeling as if you are in a state of “high alert” and are ‘on watch’ for anything else that might happen
  • feeling emotionally numb, as if in a state of “shock”
  • becoming emotional and upset
  • feeling extremely fatigued and tired
  • feeling very stressed and/or anxious
  • being very protective of others including family and friends
  • not wanting to leave a particular place for fear of “what might happen”

Reactions to Trauma

Most people have some kind of stress reaction after a trauma. This reaction can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. The less obvious effects, termed “subthreshold” trauma symptoms, can involve having difficulty regulating emotional states, maintaining steady and rewarding social and family relationships, and functioning competently at a job. More intense effects often involve experiencing overwhelming emotion, feelings of utter helplessness, and feeling numb and emotionally disconnected from self and others.

Physical reactions to trauma:

  • fatigue or exhaustion
  • disturbed sleep
  • nausea, vomiting and dizziness
  • headaches
  • excessive sweating
  • increased heart rate.

Common behavioral reactions to trauma:

  • avoiding reminders of the event
  • inability to stop focusing on what occurred
  • getting immersed in recovery-related tasks
  • losing touch with normal daily routines 
  • changed appetite, such as eating a lot more or a lot less
  • turning to substances such as alcohol, cigarettes and coffee
  • sleeping problems.

Reacting to trauma has nothing to do with personal weakness. It depends on many things: the type and severity of the event, certain personality traits, natural levels of resilience, the amount of support available for the person following the incident, other stressors currently in the person’s life, and whether the person has had past traumatic experiences.

It’s important to understand that all trauma symptoms are adaptations. They are the personal ways that individuals attempt to cope as best they can with overwhelming feelings. When you notice symptoms of trauma, whether in yourself or someone else, ask yourself: what purpose does this behavior serve? These adaptations helped a person cope at some point in their past and are still serving that purpose in the present. Realizing that adaptations to trauma are survival mechanisms will help you to make sense of them and also to have compassion for the “survivor.” 

Mental reactions to trauma:

  • reduced concentration and memory
  • intrusive thoughts about the event
  • repeatedly playing parts of the event over in the mind
  • confusion or disorientation.

Emotional reactions to trauma:

  • fear, anxiety and panic
  • shock – difficulty believing in what has happened, feeling detached and confused 
  • feeling numb
  • not wanting to connect with others or becoming withdrawn from those around you
  • continuing alarm – feeling like the danger is still there or the event is continuing
  • let-down – after the crisis is over, exhaustion may become obvious. Emotional reactions to the event are felt during the let-down phase, and include depression, avoidance, guilt, oversensitivity, and withdrawal.

Recovery from Trauma

Many people who suffer from trauma have no long-lasting, disabling effects. Over time, a natural healing and recovery process enables them to overcome their difficulties and regain their ability to function on a daily basis. There are practical and psychological steps that you can take to help you through the recovery period. Some of these are:

  • Recognise that you have been through a distressing or frightening experience and that you will have a reaction to it.
  • Accept that you will not feel like your normal self for a period of time, but that it will also eventually pass.
  • Remind yourself daily that you are managing – try not to get angry or frustrated with yourself if you are not able to do things as well or efficiently as normal.
  • Don’t overuse alcohol or drugs to help you cope.
  • Avoid making major decisions or big life changes until you feel better.
  • Gradually confront what has happened – don’t try to block it out.
  • Don’t bottle up your feelings – talk to someone who can support and understand you.
  • Try to keep to your normal routine and stay busy.
  • Don’t go out of your way to avoid certain places or activities. Don’t let the trauma confine your life, but take your time to get back to normal.
  • When you feel exhausted, make sure you set aside time to rest.
  • Make time for regular exercise – it helps cleanse your body and mind of tension.
  • Help your family and friends to help you by telling them what you need, such as time out or someone to talk to.
  • Relax – use relaxation techniques such as yoga, breathing, or meditation, or do things you enjoy, such as listening to music or gardening.
  • Express your feelings as they arise – talk to someone about your feelings or write them down.
  • When the trauma brings up memories or feelings, try to confront them. Think about them, then put them aside. If it brings up other past memories, try to keep them separate from the current problem and deal with them separately.

There is no right or wrong way to deal with trauma. Just as people’s experience of trauma is individual, their means of recovering from it is also individual. Some process their experiences outwardly, for example, by talking and expressing their emotions. Others may deal with them inwardly, for example through self-soothing and calming behaviors. When addressing another person’s trauma, it is important to be attuned to and respectful of their personal ways of managing it.

It is also important to be aware that coping mechanisms that were effective in the past are often ineffectual and even destructive in the present. For example, old self-soothing behaviors may manifest in an abuse of alcohol or drugs. In situations where the trauma has been more severe and for a prolonged period of time, the symptoms the person suffers from are often more severe and last longer. If this is the case, the person would benefit from being treated for PTSD.

Remember: Traumatic stress reactions are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter a person’s sense of security, making them feel helpless in a dangerous world. Both the reactions to and ways of coping with trauma are highly personal to each survivor.

Also remember: Most traumatic reactions are short lived. A natural recovery process takes place during the months following the trauma and people return to “feeling like themselves” again. In fact, many people’s lives are improved as they find healthy ways to recover and heal from trauma. These include:

  • Increased bonding with family and community
  • Redefined or increased sense of purpose and meaning
  • Increased commitment to a personal mission
  • Revised priorities
  • Increased charitable giving and volunteerism

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