After working with hundreds of clients who have experienced traumatic life events, I have come to appreciate the complex and often creative strategies individuals use to cope during or after a traumatic event.
Traumatic events that cause extreme emotions or fear of death/permanent injury affect each person in a different way. The thoughts or emotions are uniquely experienced based on a person’s life experiences, culture, prior traumas, coping skills, knowledge or resources. While nearly everyone will at some point experience a serious trauma, the majority will use their social supports and coping effectively and recover within weeks. Others will be plagued by nightmares, fear of reminders, experience severe anxiety and dysregulated emotions.
Each traumatic event can build resilience or vulnerability depending on the sequence of prior events. Trauma can be experienced from events such as assault, abuse in childhood, neglect, accidents, witnessing others being injured or dying, domestic violence, emotional violence, medical procedures and death of loved ones.
What is resilience?
Resilience builds from exposure to toxic events, and individuals will develop amazing ways to cope in situations that others thought impossible. Resilience builds from learning what works and refining it in new situations that require the same skills. Many professionals work in areas where they are exposed to vicarious trauma, and in a similar way most professionals develop cognitive strategies, relaxation and supports around their work or traumatic events. Resilience can be:
- A way of thinking about the events,
- A support system that buffers the emotional experience,
- A million little things that make recovery possible!
What is the Traumatic Self?
During a trauma we act differently to “survive” and experience “not normal” emotions. Usually negative emotions are experienced at a severe level such as rage, fear, betrayal, abandonment and disgust. The “self” that manages these emotions can be formed as a temporary or integrated part of the normal experience of life. For example, a lifesaver may adapt to feeling heroic during a rescue, but may or may not feel like this when not at the beach.
We have emotions, thoughts and behaviours that are often linked to the “social self” that is present at work, home, in groups, at sport or other events. What we think of as “me” is often a combination of many social selves. We are often unaware of the transient changes in our thoughts, emotions or behaviours that link to the changing environments. It is normal for women to have greater disparity in the social roles enacted day to day.
Therefore the traumatic self is developed during a trauma and may or may not feel like the usual self that operates when there is no trauma. After repeated exposure to trauma, the traumatic self develops and may feel like integral part of self. This can become problematic if the traumatic self has behaviours that are not collaborative or helpful to improving life. The traumatic self often lives day to day and doesn’t plan for the future. This may be adaptive in a third world country, but not when life is likely to return to normal.
Therapists will often attempt to identify the non-adaptive or dsyfunctional part of self and provide counselling around changing those thoughts, emotions or behaviours. This is easier if the event occurred once, and if support was available during the recovery phase in the weeks after the trauma. What is not easy is changing thoughts or emotions that have arisen for self preservation. If you lived in a dangerous neighbourhood, then the ability to experience anger or fear may be useful to run or fight off an attacker.
How does Counselling Help?
Counselling helps to find ways to establish safety. Often problem solving is very difficult when experiencing high anxiety from a trauma. After attaining safety and having attended to physical injuries, then there is often a phase of reducing stimulation and recovery. Some people find themselves feeling different or flat or nervous during this phase. Often people will talk to supports about what happened and make conclusions about how it happened or what else could have happened.
After settling and finding safety there is an important process of reflection on what the “traumatic self” did and integration of those thoughts and emotions into the normal life experience. Often the event will feel like it happened yesterday, until the emotions and thoughts have been integrated effectively. Counselling helps integrate these emotions and thoughts, especially when the trauma involved stigmatising events such as assault or failed medical care.
Can I get better from trauma?
Most people will improve after a trauma, even if they have severe symptoms after the event. For some people recovery is instant with no counselling, nor special help; for others the journey is dependent on many other support structures and this can take some time. Over time the traumatic memories can feel distant with effective counselling, and the goal is that the memories no longer cause pain or nervousness or emotions when reminded. Most people will achieve this even with multiple traumas and events that they felt totally unable to control.
I have personally found that trauma recovery is a very rewarding area in which to work, and my clients have privileged me with an opportunity to share their experiences and help them file them away forever.
Author: Vivian Jarrett, B Psych (hons), AMAPS, MAICD.
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