Trauma can result from any circumstance that outweighs your ability to cope. The event is terrifying, unnerving, and unexpected. For many of us, unexpected events can bring a host of anxious thoughts and feelings including depressed mood.
In this article and video, I discuss 6 ways to cope with acute (short-term) symptoms that have been retriggered by a recent traumatic event.
Traumatic stress refers to symptoms resulting from a traumatic experience.
It refers to the multiple changes the body and mind undergo as one tries to process the negatives of a traumatic event. It isn’t something that you can easily overcome. And it isn’t something you can escape either.
Trauma is subjective, based on your opinion of what you are experiencing. It is often very difficult to determine what is and is not a traumatic experience. It can encompass anything that outweighs your ability to cope. For children, trauma can be devastating to their natural development and ability to trust.
Once a traumatic situation has taken root in your heart, mind, soul, and life in general, it can feel impossible to “come back” but it isn’t impossible.
Cognitive and emotional consequences of trauma
Below is a list of cognitive/emotional and physiological/behavioral responses to a traumatic experience that may result in post-traumatic stress. Some of the trauma responses I encourage you to look out for include but are not limited to:
Flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares: Flashbacks are like mini-versions of a traumatic event that continue to revisit you over and over again. They are triggered by sensory or emotional stimuli that remind you of the trauma. Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that you cannot control because the mind “automatically” revisits the trauma over and over again. Sometimes, as I explain to many of my clients suffering from PTSD, “flashbacks” or mini-versions of the trauma can seep into our dreams and become nightmares. All of these things are likely to occur for many of the displaced victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Re-organization of perception of life: A re-organization of one’s perception of life tends to happen when tragedy strikes. Questions about purpose, meaning, goals, direction in life, etc. are often revisited following a natural disaster. In fact, many victims of traumatic incidents seek therapy for this reason alone. They are looking for answers to deep seeded questions. When someone is “re-organizing” their perception of life or belief system, they are likely to question their purpose in life, the purpose of others, the purpose of suffering, the purpose of happiness, etc. It is very normal for a victim of trauma to reconsider everything they thought they knew. Wouldn’t you?
Anger, resentment, regret: Anger, resentment, and regret is likely to surface once the initial trauma is over. The shock, the survival mode, the flight or fight response, and the “power through” attitude is going to wear off as the days go on. Once it does, anger is bound to set in. Anger at what happened, why it happened, how it happened, what happened in the process, what happened after the disaster, etc are all likely culprits in the development of anger. When I discuss grief and loss with my clients I often bring up the stages of loss. The stages of loss include:
- Denial – The attitude that things either didn’t happen at all or happen the way you thought it happened originally.
- Anger– The questioning faze where emotions are often all over the place and the mind is racing for “why.”
- Depression-Feelings of defeat, hopelessness, helplessness, or isolation and withdrawal.
- Bargaining – The attitude that if you do good or “give back,” God will bring back what you lost or change your situation.
- Acceptance– This is the stage where grief is less overwhelming. I often explain this stage to my clients to be the stage where discussion of the grief and loss becomes slightly easier. It is a stage where acceptance doesn’t always mean “getting over” the pain. Acceptance means being able to survive the grief and being able to take steps forward no matter what.
Suicidal thoughts: Suicidal thoughts are likely to occur at some point as the victims of Hurricane Harvey scramble to put their lives back together. Finding shelter, employment, lost belongings (if possible), loved ones, friends, etc. is going to be one of the most difficult parts of this trauma for the victims. They will need a lot of love, compassion, and prayer to get through this. In the process of putting their lives back together, healing their emotional and psychological wounds, and moving forward, it is possible that feelings of defeat, denial, hopelessness, helplessness, and depression begin or return. In order to cope with the trauma, suicidal thoughts may arise. It’s a natural “fight or flight” response.
Behavioral and physiological consequences of a traumatic event
Isolation/withdrawal: Isolation and withdrawal may already be an issue for many of the displaced victims in Texas. Isolation and withdrawal is a byproduct of depression and the grief and loss stage. It would be wonderful if someone could bring some kind of entertainment to displaced victims after things calm down in an attempt to “pull out” those who may be hiding away as a way to cope with grief.
Misappropriated anger or resentment: It is also likely that individuals who have experienced trauma begin to take their anger, resentment, or pinned up frustration out on family members, friends, coworkers, or even strangers. Internalized anger, resentment, frustration, or pain can result in irresponsible behaviors, substance abuse/use, violence, risky behaviors, worsening mental illness, worsening medical conditions, etc. These are all issues that will require the help of trauma therapists, pastors, etc. in the coming days.
Verbal or physical aggression: Pinned up or internalized anger can turn into verbal or physical aggression. When fatigue is high including a lot of other normal human reactions to terrible events it is very likely that everyone begins to feel tired, burned out, or exhausted. When this happens, verbal and physical aggression is likely. Can you imagine trying to survive in a shelter with someone else who may be behaving inappropriately, saying triggering things, or “rubbing” you the wrong way? How would you react. For tired, burned out, and hurting people, “snapping” is a natural reaction to agitation.
Low self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-worth: The loss of everything can be devastating. Everything. Where do you turn? How do you replace everything? Even though most people shy away from complaining about the material things they have lost, you can’t help but express regret at the fact that their lives are torn apart. The material wealth we have to survive means a lot to all of us. Even though we must be careful not to “praise” material wealth, we cannot ignore the fact that material wealth helps us to literally survive and develop an identity in the world. A family home built on love, a brand-new car purchased by a loved one, or years of family photos and memories gone in a hurricane can not only lead to depression but low self-esteem or self-worth. Part of our identity is wrapped in the materials we have to a certain extent. Not being able to go home, get in one’s car, or retrieve memories is devastating to say the least.