‘Time seemed to slow down’ ‘the worst part of it was I couldn’t help them’ ‘it was as if I’d floated up to the ceiling, looking down on what was happening to me’ ‘ I was frozen with fear’ ‘she said, after the accident, that I wasn’t the man she had married’ These are just some of the typical comments that people make when discussing their traumatic experiences.
What is ‘Trauma’? In his book, ‘Trauma,’* Professor Gordon Turnbull suggests that post-traumatic stress is not a psychiatric illness, but a natural way of reacting to extraordinary circumstances. The condition is produced by the brain’s response to upsetting circumstances that on some level threaten our very existence and view of the world. Post-traumatic stress can range from experiencing natural disasters, such a floods and earthquakes, critical incidents caused by humans, such as the London Bombings and road traffic accidents; there seems to be evidence too that sustained bullying at work or in school, the sudden termination of a job or relationship, or suddenly finding out that you have a life changing illness, can also trigger post-traumatic stress. Observing traumatic events happening to others can also trigger a traumatic reaction, even where the observer is not directly involved. Where the condition becomes a disorder is if the symptoms after the event become chronically entrenched.
What are the Symptoms? People suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, commonly experience flashbacks, bad dreams and nightmares and intrusive memories, either about the event, or about an imagined future traumatic incident; they may become insular to the point of agoraphobia and no longer want to socialise because of this reaction. They often feel overly vigilant, jumpy at unexpected noises, so much so that they take a long time to calm down and shrug it off (‘it was only a car backfiring, not a gun going off’). People can also feel helpless, numb, angry, have a sense of ‘why did it happen to me?’ or of invincibility, if they were spared from the worst of the event. The latter can lead to risky behaviour, such as drinking too much. Such symptoms and behaviour are normal, but if left untreated, the resulting thinking patterns, behaviour and negative feelings may become a fixture limiting living life to the full.
What are the Coping Strategies? Coping with trauma can take many forms – some people turn to those closest to them or go into counselling therapy, where they will be listened to and feel supported on this journey. Others find that they can distract themselves in helpful ways through hobbies, pets, returning to work or supporting a charity that helps victims of traumatic events. The main point in coping is don’t bottle up your feelings! Find a good listener and talk about what you experienced. In this way, the brain begins to learn how to accommodate what has happened and healing will take place.
What Professional Help is Available? Two treatments in particular, are recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (CBT and EMDR). Both of these treatments have a body of evidence to demonstrate that they are effective. They are active approaches to therapy and encourage people to change their behaviour through processing their experiences. By ‘processing’ I mean the journey that someone takes in order to feel that they can get on with their lives without the shadow of the traumatic event being ever present. This journey takes time and patience and if you stick to it, you are very likely to cope better with what has happened. Like a physical wound, the psychological wound of trauma heals from within.
* Trauma by Professor Gordon Turnbull (Corgi, 2012)
Jen Popkin, British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy Senior Accredited and Registered Counsellor and EMDR UK & Ireland Accredited Practitioner