Psychologically Speaking: 'Doc, I can't seem to get over this'
Emotional trauma can be worse than physical trauma and leaves its casualties in its wake.
It happens so often. Someone walks into my office and complains that he experienced a particular life-threatening event and for whatever reason, he is bothered by it much more than he thinks he should be. For some, the traumatic incident took place years ago. For others, it was recent. In all cases, this event (which could have been a loss, a natural disaster, an accident, a rape or a terror attack) has managed to totally overwhelm and overload the system. There's no doubt that the person sitting before me feels anger, shame, guilt, tremendous distress, shock and sadness. The pain is intense and it disrupts sleep, eating, the ability to feel and the ability to relax. It often takes over completely, making it hard to be in a relationship. At times it makes it difficult to feel sane. Sometimes, people report feeling numb. Some report feeling nothing. Others withdraw from their loved ones altogether.
When the media report that there were no casualties after a bombing, a Kassam or even after a warning siren goes off, they lie. They clearly have not been in my office. There may not be a detached limb or a body mangled by shrapnel, but some days, my patients would trade what they are going through in silence for a visible physical injury. Emotional trauma can be worse than physical trauma, and without any doubt leaves its casualties in its wake.
These people's lives are changed forever. They may not be able to work, leave their house or maintain interpersonal relationships. Life is in no way as simple as it once seemed. Their world, as a result of a sudden, unexpected, violent act has been permanently altered. Once able to enjoy their naivetÃ©, now trust, safety and security can no longer be taken for granted. This inability to trust and lack of certainty can keep someone on their toes 24/7.
They live in "flight or fight" mode, never knowing when they may have to run or attack, so they remain alert and aroused, prepared for any and all emergencies. If living through the event once was not difficult enough, they often reexperience the event many times in the form of flashbacks and nightmares. They are miserable.
Trauma can be experienced when normal people, like you and me, experience an abnormal situation and become overwhelmed. Many, with time alone, can work things through and move on. For some, this work is far too difficult, their systems are far too "sensitized" and they need help to process what happened to enable them to get on with their lives.
We all have the ability to choose how we perceive and remember an experience. In other words, how we perceive our story will in part determine the effect and the impact that event will have on us. This is a key point in any therapy. With good therapy one can learn to appreciate that he can have control over many aspects of the traumatic event. This can enable him to move on with his life, in spite of all that has happened. Therapy can involve learning how to trust, feel confident and safe, as well as giving one the ability to feel heard, accepted unconditionally and having a sense of being in control.
People do heal from trauma, and while they may carry scars, by rebuilding their lives, they may grow exponentially. Self-fulfillment comes when they learn not to take anything for granted, fully appreciate the moment and live their lives in the here and now. People discover strengths and resources in themselves and their environment that they never knew existed, and this in itself enables them to cope better and begin to heal.
While therapy can be important, there are many other things that one can do to begin to heal. Here are just a few: Be gentle with yourself but return to routine as much as possible. Get plenty of rest, eat well and exercise. Avoid alcohol and other stimulants.
Write down your feelings so you can begin to let go of them. Start a journal.
Talk with friends and family. Tell your story as often as you choose but only to the degree that you find it helpful.
Avoid retraumatizing yourself. Avoid the media and other influences that may increase your stress and anxiety.
Learn relaxation techniques, guided imagery and anything else that can enable you to find a safe place for your feelings. Get a massage. Notice things that give you pleasure, search for the positives in your life. Now may be the time to get involved with a hobby or a project that has meaning for you.
Catch yourself laughing. You'd be surprised at how therapeutic either a good laugh or a cry can be.
Recovery and healing are a slow process. Give yourself the time you need. Look after yourself and get the help you need. You will be surprised to discover that with time, this event will seem much less traumatic.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.