A door slams, someone yells, you hear heavy breathing, these are potential triggers that exist for someone… Now what?
Not everyone has the same reaction to trauma or recovers in the same way, or in a set time frame. Research has shown that there is wide variability in recovery from trauma, with few indications as to who will recover relatively quickly and who will not.
A person’s coping strategies – how we deal with adverse situations – may be one of the ways people protect themselves, provided of course, that the coping behaviours themselves are positive. These can include talking to a supportive friend, joining a support group, allowing time to adjust and reestablishing routines.
Poor coping responses such as giving up, denial and avoiding talking about the event/events are associated with a poorer recovery from trauma. This can mean more negative symptoms such as continued depression, flashbacks, emotional numbing and difficulty with relationships.
It is not unusual for victims to find themselves eventually getting divorced after a trauma, for example, because they have become distant from or even abusive toward their spouse. If a person had a tendency toward depression or other mental health issues before the traumatic event occurred, that can have an effect on how well he or she recovers from the trauma.
In addition, people with histories of previous trauma such as combat veterans, child abuse – may be more vulnerable to the effects of new traumatic events.
When confronted with a new traumatic event, researchers found that many individuals reported flashbacks to past experiences, elevated anxiety, psychological numbness, nightmares and heightened anger.
I have heard stories from people recovering from PTSD about traumatic events in the news suddenly reminding them of events that happened many years in the past.
One person, upon seeing the media coverage of the Humbolt crash, told me he couldn’t understand why he was suddenly remembering the time his dog was run over by a car in front of him when he was seven. He reported that he experienced his memory of his dog’s death “like it just happened only yesterday.” These seemingly unconnected events may have been connected in his memory by the same emotional reaction to each event.
How can people cope with trauma? What, then, can people do to alleviate the negative aftereffects of such events in order to return to their normal daily lives? The American Psychological Association recommends making connections with others, accepting change, meeting problems head-on and taking care of yourself.
It’s also important to remember that one never completely forgets such events, nor do professionals suggest that is the goal of recovery. Healthy recovery involves acknowledging that the events were terrible but at the same time not allowing them to interfere with daily living. Even if, 10 years later, a sudden noise triggers momentary fear.
I encourage people to seek professional help if the effects become overwhelming. These are not only common sense recommendations; they are backed by decades of research.
Remember that recovery is not easy but it is possible and that those emotional and psychological reactions are normal responses to abnormal situations.
By Brian Nadon