Traumatic events, both on an individual or a global scale are becoming an all too familiar part of our daily lives. Most people will experience a traumatic event in the course of their life and many will experience more than one traumatic event. Trauma and its aftermath extend in an ever-widening circle with varying degrees of impact. Lives can be destroyed by trauma but they can also be positively transformed. With or without help, people can endure, they can prevail, and they can overcome the effects of experiencing trauma. Following a traumatic event, people can even be grateful for their experience and enjoy the benefit of a richer and more rewarding life.
Surprisingly, during the traumatic event itself, most people don’t become overwhelmed or paralyzed by intense fear or shock. Many people behave quite adaptively and appropriately. They calculate their avenues of escape, they reach out to help others, they render first aid, and they do everything they can to survive, including getting help. A certain degree of emotional detachment or numbing takes place that allows a person to deal with the practical survival needs of the situation.
Following the traumatic event, the emotional numbing may continue for some time. For a while, the individual may feel lost, alone, and separate from others. There is often a feeling of emptiness. Once things get back to “normal” and ordinary life resumes, the first symptoms of trauma may begin to surface.
The symptoms of trauma are grouped into three different areas: re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, and symptoms of increased arousal. Re-experiencing may take the form of intrusive memories of the event including images, thoughts, or perceptions. A person may re-experience aspects of the trauma in the form of disturbing or recurring nightmares. Even while they are fully awake and going about their day, a person may feel like the traumatic experience is recurring. These recurrences may take the form of hallucinations, illusions, or dissociative flashback episodes (the person loses touch with reality and is transported back into the experience). Certain cues like sounds or smells or situations that resemble aspects of the trauma may trigger extreme psychological or physiological distress.
A person may consciously or unconsciously avoid anything associated with the trauma or become numb when encountering aspects similar to the trauma. The person may refuse to talk about their experience or avoid going to places that remind them of the trauma. The individual may be unable to recall important parts of their experience during the trauma. The avoidance may also take the form of continuing to feel detached from the world around them, losing interest in normal activities, being unable to experience joy or love, or believing that for some reason, they will not live a normal life span.
Symptoms of increased arousal include the inability to fall or stay asleep, hypervigilance (scanning the environment, being unable to relax, seeing danger everywhere), and an exaggerated startle response (jumpy or edgy). A person may also become extremely irritable and display frequent outbursts of anger. The anger may take the form of explosive rage. There is an “internal tension” and the person can’t shut down. The level of increased arousal also interferes with cognitive function and a person may have difficulty concentrating, focusing on a task, or have significant problems with short-term memory. People often think they are going crazy because their brain “doesn’t work” anymore.
In many cases the major symptoms and disturbances diminish in frequency and intensity over the course of weeks to months following the traumatic event. The person processes their experience and integrates the event into their personal history and way of viewing the world. Illusions that have been challenged or shattered are reworked and a more realistic awareness of individual vulnerability is developed. The individual uses this new information to re-establish their basic feeling of security and self-confidence.
There are times, however, when the pain of trauma is too big to integrate and it doesn’t go away. Either the initial acute distress response does not subside or the impact of the trauma surfaces months and sometimes even years after the event Symptoms develop and increase in frequency and intensity over time and become debilitating. Individuals involved in a traumatic event can develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and/or Addictions.
The effects of a traumatic event can be far-reaching. Trauma may impact bystanders, on-scene helpers, trained first responders, and family members. People who have been secondarily traumatized can also develop stress reactions or full-blown symptoms of one or more of the above disorders.
The effects of a traumatic event can be pervasive, overwhelming, and unbearable. Without treatment, the symptoms can become lethal and, in extreme cases, can lead to homicide or suicide. A person may feel like there is no longer any joy in life and that they are doomed to painfully suffer through every day with their symptoms. They lose faith in themselves, in life, in humanity, and/or in God. The world can seem empty of meaning and filled with intense anxiety, loss, and struggle. The traumatic event is viewed as a destructive life event that leads to life long cynicism and despair.
There are people, however, who persevere through their experience. Either on their own or with professional help, they successfully cope with the effects of the trauma. Still others rise above their experience. They find a way to use the traumatic experience to change them in positive ways and to make them stronger and wiser. These people grow psychologically and spiritually as a result of their experience and they become better people for it.
People who view their traumatic experience as a positive event identify three subjective benefits. The first benefit is a perceived constructive change in self. The person feels like they have grown emotionally through the experience; they feel more mature and more self-assured. Successfully coping with and growing through the experience of a traumatic event leads people to feel a sense of mastery and competence in the face of adversity. They are gratified to discover that they are stronger than they thought they were.
A second perceived benefit of trauma is a changed sense of relationship with others. People learn to set boundaries with others, become more assertive, and refuse to allow others to take advantage of them. They value themselves and their life more, and they take better care of themselves. The awareness of their own vulnerability can lead to more emotional expressiveness, a willingness to accept help from others, an increased sensitivity and empathy towards others, and a greater emotional intimacy with others. Primary relationships are valued and viewed as a higher priority.
The third benefit is a changed philosophy of life. This change includes a more balanced perspective on life, a healthy reordering of one’s values, a greater enjoyment of the ordinary moments of daily life, a sense of gratitude for what one has in the present, a developing awareness and/or a strengthening of spiritual beliefs, and a greater appreciation of life itself.
A fourth and more subtle benefit of trauma is an increased sense of personal power and mastery. When people come face to face with their own mortality, they can either retreat in fear and life-long anxiety or they can look deeply into themselves and into the nature of their own existence and come to terms with the essence of life and death. When a person becomes fully aware of their mortality and fully accepts and surrenders to the reality of it, they lose their fear of both death and life. They become more self-reliant, more self-directed, more reflective, more conscious of the choices they make, more responsible, and more optimistic. They take control of their own life and stop trying to control other’s lives or the world.
A traumatic experience is a powerful experience and can change a person’s life. It can change for the worse or it can change for the better. Each person has the opportunity to use the trauma event to deepen their understanding of what it is to be human, to discover their strengths and resources, to open up their perspective to incorporate a wider view of life, and to become a better person.
Shirley Vandersteen, Ph.D., R. Psych.