It’s World Mental Health Day today and it is important to me as a psychologist, mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend to contribute to the debates about ending the stigma surrounding Mental Health and share some thoughts and guidance on how to cope with trauma. I am reading an excellent book at the moment by the wonderful Edith Eger. It’s called “The Choice” and I love it. In it she advises that when we don’t allow ourselves to process and grieve our losses, our wounds and our disappointments the traumatic experiences of the past become like a prison and we keep reliving them. It is a psychological prison which locks us up in fear, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, panic, anger and frustration.
When a traumatic event impacts us we don’t have to choose to remain in a state of victimhood. There is nothing wrong with being a victim. What I mean is that there is a difference between victimisation (what others or circumstances do to us) and victimhood (which is about choosing to remain imprisoned by this event). I do appreciate that when you are thrown into this ontologically awake state of being in terror, it is really not something that feels like a choice. When I say choice, I mean it is an existential choice to invest your psychological energy into looking after you. Reflecting on what it is like for you to be you, trusting in the life processes and allowing yourself to heal. In my view taking an anxiolytic drug, or antidepressant drug won’t heal your pain. It will numb it. I am not against meds. They certainly help and can get people through the day. It is however, the reflective process – allowing yourself to trust that it is ok to look inwards and pay attention to your lived experience that is healing. We are not objects. We are beings and when a traumatic event happens we experience it in our core, through our beingness. Avoiding it makes little sense and healing comes from exercising the freedom to choose meaning. As Viktor Frankl said in “Man’s search for meaning” human beings have the capacity to face adversity and despair in a dignified and meaningful way.
Having said all that I do want to state that I do appreciate navigating trauma is tough and everybody experiences it differently. There is no right way to feel after a traumatic event. It’s personal. It’s unique to the circumstances of your life and what it’s actually like to have been you. The medicalisation of PTSD and human suffering has led to a pathologizing of what to me seems like an inevitable part of living. Is it possible to go through life without experiencing pain, loss, fear and some kind of trauma and mental anguish? I don’t think so.
What is important is the degree to which we allow ourselves to embrace our experience of the past. Horrific, traumatic events happen but we don’t have to be imprisoned by them. We have a choice to face it, to share it, to process the emotional pain of it, to have it witnessed by others, to make sense of what now, to nourish our sense of who we are and how we matter. Everybody has the potential to adapt to traumatic life events. I am not suggesting this is easy. A lot of people need some guided support. But counselling does help with this.
A lot of people I work with in my practice, experience trauma as a devastating experience which rips their sense of who they are apart. They describe being caught up in paralysing fear. Anxious that life will never feel safe and normal again. Living with an impending or immediate sense of terror. It’s exhausting and invisible.
It’s important to remember that an unexpected, sudden, untimely and utterly devastating traumatic event is an experience that has a profound effect on the whole of your being, affecting how you think, feel about life, and how you continue to be in the face of such an event. Traumatised people find themselves going through a deep personal change that taps into all dimensions of their being.
When a traumatic event happens the first thing to happen is the embodied reaction. The physical dimension of trauma evokes a powerful bodily reaction which is completely normal. The body reacts by throwing the traumatised person into a state of arresting and paralysing shock, characterised by an intense feeling of disbelief and general numbness. Often people traumatized describe shaking, trembling, feeling numb, vomiting, crying uncontrollably, screaming, sitting stunned, silent, not feeling anything for ages, not crying but feeling a paralysing shock. All embodied reactions to trauma are normal.
The mind experiences a cognitive arrest, where the person traumatised does not feel that he/she knows how to be, what to say, what to think, and how to make sense of the new state of life. The overwhelming shock at the reality of the loss is imbued with a disorientating sense of being empty, blank and feeling alienated.
Many people suffering such a trauma, feel frightened by the intensity of their embodied response and get stuck in modes which are about pushing the anxiety of such pain away and down.
This doesn’t help. It builds and eventually pours out in other psychological disturbance. We are obsessed at the moment about productive recovery. Healing from trauma is about learning to integrate the experiences of the past into a coherent narrative about life, about our sense of self and about the future. Becoming engaged in meaningful relationships with others and nourishing our relationship with ourself is key. Finding a meaningful life project also is an excellent buffer.
If you are navigating such trauma – take pause, stock and get talking with someone who is prepared to listen. It’s vital you don’t expect yourself to go through this alone. If you need professional help invest in it. It is an investment into your life, your self. You matter.
To find a Counsellor, Psychologist, Psychotherapist take a look at the following websites: