Trauma Makes the Storms of Life Feel like Hurricanes
Is someone in your life often at the center of a “Perfect Storm”? Is there always some dilemma or mishap that keeps friends running for cover, battening down the hatches, and bailing out the person from trouble? Your friend may be dealing with the effects of trauma. Traumatic events in our past can create troubling volatility in our present. And this creates storms for everyone else, too. By understanding how trauma affects people, we can have more compassion. And we can also learn to relate in helpful ways.
So, what is trauma, and how does it affect us?
Put simply, trauma is any event or series of events that leaves us immediately feeling:
1) Overwhelmed (Sometimes we feel our safety or survival is in peril)
3) Alone or disconnected from humanity
Because we all have different reactions to events, what is a “mountain” to one person, may be a “molehill” to the next person. With variations in personal history, resilience, social support, physical health, and cultural factors, the experience of trauma tends to be very personal. Imagine yourself alone, helpless, and overwhelmed by a cyclone. That’s how trauma feels.
Here are some examples of events that have traumatized people (note the huge range): divorce (own or parents), abduction, bullying, car accidents, sexual assault, parental neglect, famine, death of a relative, death of a pet, being robbed, gun violence, sexual abuse, day-care, changing schools, natural disasters, war, serious illness, parental mental illness/substance abuse, bankruptcy, imprisonment, new step-family, etc. Because children are vulnerable, dependent, and lack the cognitive filters that adults use, youngsters are often more at risk of trauma than adults are.
Along with these immediate effects during the storm, trauma can leave us with delayed effects after the sky clears:
2. Negative Mood (Angry, Sad, Anxious, Numb, Irritable, etc.)
3. Negative Coping patterns (Isolation, Addictions, Outbursts, Zoning-out, etc.)
These reactions (and others) are common results of trauma but we can sometimes feel like we are “going crazy” or “not ourselves” anymore. Our friends and family can wonder the same thing.
Just understanding how trauma works is often comforting for everyone involved.
In fact, one of my clients who had a history of sexual, physical, verbal and emotional abuse, summed it up for her bewildered husband: “See?” she said to him with some relief, “You didn’t marry drama! You married TRAUMA!”
When we are informed about trauma, we stop asking, “What’s wrong with you?” and start asking, “What happened to you?” Then, we can really listen.
Here are some things you can do for your friend or loved one who has been traumatized:
1. Safety. If the person is still experiencing the trauma, ensure that they are immediately provided the resources to feel safe. To provide physical, emotional and psychological protection, the victim or perpetrator may need to be removed from reminders or triggers, physical needs met (food, drink, shelter, medical, sleep), locks changed, guardian assigned, etc. The person may regress to an earlier stage of life — they may need to be hugged and rocked like a child. The person may experience a range of emotions and should not be left alone until they feel safe. Longer term, safety is accomplished by offering needed support/protection when they feel unsafe in new situations. This can include ongoing legal situations.
2. Social support. Family and friends are the first line of social support along with clergy, colleagues, therapists, support groups and even social media. The professionals will give the person a safe space to process the trauma, but others serve an important function too. Friends, family and colleagues can leave the door open for talking and listening. You don’t have to solve the problem, just let them know you are with them in their distress—you won’t leave them alone and helpless. It is perfectly normal for the survivor to want to talk. It’s also perfectly normal for the survivor to clam up. Don’t pressure him or her to talk about it before they wish to do so.
3. Empowerment. At some point, the person may be interested in learning new skills and information that would offer protection or insight about the dynamics of the trauma. He or she may want to become the resident expert on PTSD, sexual abuse, bullying, legal defense, etc. In addition to knowledge, the person may want to develop new skills for empowerment. Some trauma survivors use martial arts, target shooting, personal defense, or athletic goals to impart a sense of power where before they felt overwhelmed and helpless.
4. Purpose. Sometime after the first three steps are begun, the person may find a new purpose in life. Crafting a positive purpose funnels feelings of injustice and even revenge, toward positive change — in the self and in the world. It isn’t unusual for survivors to become crusaders for social change. A dramatic example of this transition is how John Walsh became the host of “America’s Most Wanted” after the tragic kidnapping and murder of his boy, Adam Walsh. He has spent a major part of his life advocating for victims rights and protections against child predators. This final step sublimates the traumatic feelings of overwhelm, helplessness and aloneness, into empowerment, competence, and social support.
As with the stages of grief, survivors of trauma must negotiate these tasks in their own way. With professional intervention, a survivor has the best chance to calm the storms of life and bask in the sunshine of peace. As family and associates, our support of their journey is the most important role we can play