In the past few weeks, we’ve seen horror, heroism, struggle, strength, terror and heart. The Boston Marathon Bombing, city and surrounding area lockdown and manhunt may grow distant in our experience, but not necessarily from our minds and bodies.
What Trauma Can Look Like
As we get further from the days of the events, our relationship to the events may change. Some may feel like they’re getting back to normal; others may be feel like their symptoms are increasing. Both are normal and completely depend on the person. I want to take this opportunity to discuss a few symptoms and effects of trauma. I want to highlight that trauma affects everyone differently. The various effects of trauma have come up often in my sessions; not just how this trauma is affecting my clients, but those around them. In the wake of these events, we need support, and we yearn to make sense of what has happened. Here I provide some education on what trauma can look like and how we can support others and ourselves.
Everyone handles events differently. An event or experience labeled as “traumatic” depends as much on the individual as it depends on the event itself. Each individual's past experience, coping skills, and support in their lives is a factor in their reaction and ability to handle advantageous experiences.
No symptom is too small. Any event can bring about a mental, physical/sensational, and spiritual change that may or may not require some attention. Perhaps your sleep is a little more disrupted than usual, or perhaps you notice your friend is more vigilant than usual on public transportation. Symptoms of posttraumatic stress can vary in their degree and include: worry, anxiety, avoidance, nightmares, sleeplessness, fear, emotional distress and feeling things you simply don’t usually feel.
Getting “back to normal” also depends on the individual. I have a client who experienced the bombings just a couple blocks away from the finish line which triggered an immense amount of anxiety for this person, also fear, distress, worry, difficulty sleeping as well as tightness and discomfort in her body. This client was urged to go back to work two days after the bombing, and encouraged to get back to her old routine. Problems surfaced from this (well-meaning) advice. This client’s workplace was still a crime scene two days after the event. The workplace was not enough “normal” for her to be able to return to a routine. She was not able to stay at work and was in fact re-traumatized. That said, getting back to normalcy is immensely helpful, but we must be sensitive to what “normal” actually looks and feels like.
Getting help must be the person’s choice. The client I reference above was encouraged to seek mental health counseling at a large local hospital. The intentions were good but did not fit what this person needed. She needed to be somewhere that was less threatening to her and she needed someone by her side whom she trusted. She was more than willing to get help but was being pushed in a direction that inspired further dread and distress. Receiving therapy in a quieter area of the city in a quiet office a few days later accompanied by a loved one proved much more helpful.
“Recovery” varies in length. Resolve is different for everyone; recovery is different. Often people also have the chance to grow in their recovery process. Respect your own process and the process of others. Many people may feel effects of a traumatic event even many years after.
Empathy. Empathy goes a long way for both yourself and those you know who have been affected by a traumatic event. Whether this means reaching out to help those also affected by the event or engaging in a practice such as “Metta” or “Loving Kindness” (of Buddhist origin) that sense of connecting and offering is immensely powerful.
We are resilient. Most people will return to a sense of normal.
Anger is normal... but acting on it is unproductive.
Optimize your thankfulness. Events like this can remind us of what we have by the way of family, friends, loved ones, pets, jobs, health and homes. Even if what we normally interpret what we have as small or insignificant, a traumatic event can help us appreciate and be grateful for what is in our lives.
When I work with groups and individuals suffering from trauma, the themes I always see as most healing are honoring what you and others feel. Be kind to yourself and others. Only by recognizing how we have been affected can we make choices to heal, grow, and keep moving forward.