Living with Trauma
As a grade school child in the 1960s, in addition to the perfunctory fire drills, I experienced routine air raid drills where we would all gather in the basement of the school and wait until we were cleared to go back to our classrooms. I never really gave it any thought at the time, most likely because we did not experience an actual air raid. Nowadays, however, I give it a lot of thought.
Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed acts of terrorism, natural disasters, and mass shootings in numbers that seem disproportionate to what we had experienced in the past. Have they really increased, or is the manner in which we experience these horrific events contributing to our perception?
It is well documented that watching live accounts of disaster footage can be traumatic. Due to seemingly endless replays (who doesn’t still have the images of people jumping out of the Twin Towers ingrained in their minds?), they can be addictive, are very troublesome and can possibly result in PTSD symptoms. The important thing to remember is that one does not necessarily have to be present or experience the traumatic event directly to be profoundly affected by it.
Let’s take a look at how this affects the people we support. So many have experienced early trauma associated with institutionalization, abuse, neglect, etc. Now we live in a world where we are encouraging people to advocate for themselves, make their own choices and get out into the world and live the lives they want. We have supports in place to protect against abuse and neglect, but we can’t control what the world has to offer, not for us, not for them. A favorite quote of mine is, “life begins at the end of your comfort zone” (Neale Donald Walsh). Encouraging people to go after their dreams is the only way they will live true and meaningful lives, but risk is ever present. How can we help?
Here are some things to think of when people we support are potentially affected by trauma:
- When someone is not able to communicate using words, it does not mean they don’t have a sense of what is happening, especially where traumatic events are concerned. Pre-language trauma is far more debilitating and has been responsible for many cases of Dissociative Identity Disorder where the mind has splintered to protect the person from experiencing the trauma. We may never learn what people have experienced in their past. When working with such individuals, especially in times of trauma, utilize other forms of communication, specific to the individual, to express, reassure, inform, and comfort.
- Newspaper and radio accounts of disasters are far less traumatizing than video footage. It may be best to limit television footage to specific times per day and supplement the information with radio and newspaper. Educate people on the possible effect of extensive TV/video footage and get their input on ways to minimize this. You want to balance the need to get up to date news with the need to protect. Take time to hear and acknowledge reactions.
- Providing an ongoing forum for people to discuss what they are experiencing can be curative. It can be done during a time of day when things quiet down and people naturally gather. For those who cannot express with words, utilize whatever medium they might be attracted to (drawing, painting, movement, etc.). Be sure everyone is heard, you don’t have to have the answer. There is no answer. Help them to tolerate the uncertainty that inevitably exists in the world. The practice of simple mindfulness exercises can keep people grounded in the here and now.
- Keep in mind that anniversary reactions to traumatic events are common. We may wonder why someone may seem upset when it is out of character and/or without any precursor events. Check the calendar for such anniversary events to better understand what the person may be going through.
- New York has seen more than its share of disaster, but keep in mind that events far away may affect those living here in NY. Be sensitive to people who have relatives who live in areas that are affected by hurricanes, tornadoes, mass shootings, terrorism, etc. Assist them in obtaining info regarding their loved ones.
- It is important to know what you are seeing/experiencing. Symptoms of PTSD include anxiety, being on edge, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts. Nightmares, distressing memories, dissociative reactions and avoidance behaviors can occur. You may also see alterations in mood and/or arousal. When these symptoms are troubling to the point of interfering with the person’s ability to engage in life, a referral to a mental health professional should be initiated. Educate the person about how this can be helpful to them and ease them of their symptoms.
- Finally, take care of yourself. Counselors, DSPs, behavior specialists, therapists, etc. and others who work closely with traumatized people can experience vicarious traumatization. They, too, can develop symptoms as though they experienced the trauma themselves. Ensure that you, as a professional, get the support you need to continue to support others.