traumatic events are incidents that cause physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological harm. These events can be abuse in any or all its forms—sexual, physical and verbal abuse or community violence such as burglaries, shootings; robberies or bullying. One of the most common ways in which trauma manifests itself is through emotion—anger, sadness, emotional outbursts, guilt, self-blame, hopelessness, withdrawal from others, mood swings and so on.
Victims of trauma may redirect the turbulent emotions that they experience toward other sources such as family members, friends or co-workers, as they try to process these feelings. Unfortunately, family members and loved ones may not want to listen to these experiences, especially if they are ongoing and seem to last forever, so that many victims of trauma may deal with their emotions by pushing them aside, without processing them. When this is done, there are usually feelings of an inability to cope with the world or a desire to leave this world by suicidal means.
Severe trauma is overwhelming stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope, and this can lead to PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder—when symptoms persist for at least one month following a traumatic event. If left untreated, PTSD can last a very long time and lead to life-long mental illness. So what are the signs that we can look for in victims who have experienced a traumatic event? These signs include having flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of intense distress when reminded of the event; guilt as in victims of rape or incest (did I cause this to happen to me?); irritability; drug and substance abuse.
One common misunderstanding that many persons have, even school counsellors and other therapists, is the error in assuming that all survivors of trauma need or want to verbally express their emotions and to talk about the trauma.
Not all persons want to talk, especially adolescents and young children. They have to first trust you before they trust the process. Adolescents especially mask their grief and their feelings, especially to adults. They seem more comfortable talking to their friends and their peers about troubling experiences.
To the adolescent, adults tend to want to give their opinions and do not listen enough. So that there must be respect for the individual’s style of coping and an understanding that coping styles may vary from being action-oriented and expressive, to persons who may just prefer to be reflective and reticent.
What can you do with persons who have experienced trauma in your family, at school or at the workplace?
• Build the victim’s mental and emotional strength. Encourage them to engage in positive self-talk, to change their perspective of the situation.
• Have persons set reasonable goals—but do not set high expectations for them, based on your own.
• Let them grieve for as long as is necessary. Grieving does not have a time limit.
• Teach persons coping skills such as cognitive restructuring so that they can identify areas that they may want to work on.
• After a traumatic event, re-establishing routine is important especially for children as there is comfort in what is familiar, and this helps to minimise stress, anxiety and hopelessness.
• Be prepared for difficult and volatile emotions from victims of trauma. Most importantly, don’t try to force the healing process.
• If the stress is intense and persistent, seek help from a mental health professional.
In conclusion, when persons have suffered trauma, your support can be a crucial factor in their recovery. Please remember that everyone’s response to trauma is different. Be available to listen if they want to talk, but do not pressure persons into talking. And don’t take it personally—your loved ones may become emotionally distant from you, irritable and angry, but these are the effects of traumatic events. These emotions are normal. Continue to walk this journey with them.
Always remember—Zip the lip. Open your ear. Be there!
(Written in observance of World Mental Health Day, today).
• Dr Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor is president of the T&T Association of Psychologists