WOW | Life Inspiration

Trauma & Healing

life-inspiration-foto-fullIt’s April. A month that marks the beginning of the new year in the Nepali calendar. And a month that now marks the the anniversary of the earthquakes that struck Nepal in 2015. The earth’s shaking propelled some to their passing, and all to an awakening. None of us here in Nepal nor others across the globe could ignore Nature’s sudden interjection. It has been a year since the earth shook so suddenly and so shockingly beneath us. So much has changed in one year. And, so much is still the same.

As I write, Mother Earth shakes again. This time her quake is like a rumbling, deep groaning echo of shifting plates. At other times her shifts sound like a door slamming – sharp, quick, almost high pitched. This time the jolt was strong. Too strong for me to ignore. My limbs are shaking, my breath and heartbeat have quickened, my whole body is tense, ready to run or to drop for cover.
It is amazing how attuned my senses have become to the Earth’s idiosyncrasies. Sounds, in particular, tend to jolt me to attention. I did not know until I heard them myself, that earthquakes have definitive sounds, their own mantra. As much as my ears pick up on vibration, my eyes and feet are alert to movements, particularly rocking or swaying ones.

My senses are more sharply tuned to my surroundings than ever before. My brain is on alert…and so is my entire body. I know this is so. And I consciously decide not to pretend that I am “OK” or “not afraid”. I allow my body to shake and quiver; I allow tears to come if they do; and I watch my breath quicken and then deepen as my system moves from fear and alertness back to balance. This hyperarousal is the incredible and powerful way in which my body aims to keep me safe and alive. It is life wanting and sustaining itself.

In the direct aftermath of the fist earthquakes I was called into organizations and communities to conduct trauma awareness programs that included somatic (body) based tools to encourage relaxation and better self-regulation. With a background in yoga therapy and transpersonal psychology, I was no specialist in trauma per se. But the earthquakes propelled me onto a steep learning curve about disaster and trauma. The past year has been filled with studying, pursuing training in trauma resolution techniques, and working with others and my own traumatized system. The learning is ongoing.

As I learn about trauma, I realise there is very little awareness about it. The word carries a hint of “taboo”. So many of us deny that we are still affected by the earthquakes or other traumatic event. We prefer to put on a proud face than to admit to the fear, confusion or sadness that we feel.

And yet the fact is that trauma is real. As human beings, all of us will experience trauma at some point or another in our lives, several times. As an integral part of life, trauma does not necessarily have to hinder us, but it often does. Even without us knowing so. That being said, there are ways to “re-negotiate” trauma and return to the flow of life.

The information on trauma follows below, its signs and symptoms, as well as resources to help heal from it.

What is trauma?

Google it, and you will find several different definitions and categorisations of trauma.

According to the DSM-IV (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a person has been exposed to a traumatic event when the following are present: “ (1) the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others. (2) the person’s response involved fear, helplessness, or horror.”

Herman defines traumatic events as “extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life…the common denominator of trauma is a feeling of ‘intense fear, helplessness, loss of control and fear of annihilation.”

So, we recognise in these two definitions that there is the “event”, the “response” to the event, and the sense of our system being overwhelmed.

What events might qualify as trauma?

Anything that causes an overwhelm in the system to the extent that the it cannot reorganize itself, qualifies as a trauma. This might be different from individual to individual. We are all “wired” differently.

Some examples of traumatic events are: natural disasters, accidents (small or large), medical procedures, abusive situations (at home or at work), violence, war, rape, domestic violence, serious illness, death of a loved one (family member, friend, pet etc.), prison stay, moving location, terrorism, abandonment, neglect, divorce.

Trauma can be experienced when we live these firsthand, directly, and second hand, as a witness to them.

Response to trauma

Trauma and shock create chemical changes in the brain and body, which affect physiological functions, cognitive abilities and emotional response. These responses can happen directly in the aftermath of the event. They can also be felt much later, even months after the event.

Some possible responses:

  • Disturbed sleep
  • Disturbed appetite
  • Increased anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Mixed emotions: fear, anger, confusion, helplessness, disinterest
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Intrusive thoughts of the trauma: thoughts or images of the event seem to come in an uncontrolled manner
  • Hyper-alertness
  • Fear and avoidance of things or places related to the trauma
  • Confusion
  • Poor decision making ability
  • Feeling helpless
  • Disinterest in surroundings
  • Withdrawal
  • Headaches, stomach aches, other pains; vomiting, heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, dizziness
  • Shaking and trembling; rapid breathing; sweating
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings (life is not worth living)

It is important to remember that it is normal to have abnormal responses or changed behaviour and/or feelings in an abnormal situation.
Also remember that a traumatic event will tend to exacerbate pre-existing conditions, either psychological or physical. Also, in cases where the individual or group has experienced trauma before, the new event can trigger a stronger or compounded response.

How do people cope with trauma?

There are many different responses to trauma, and, more importantly, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to respond.

  • Some may seem not to care
  • Some joke about their experiences
  • Some may try to forget and pretend it hasn’t happened
  • Some want to talk over and over again about what they have experienced

It is essential to allow others and ourselves to respond in their/our own way.

When to get help?

When symptoms linger for more than eight weeks after the event we should pay careful attention and seek help. As trauma expert, Dr. Peter Levine, explains, trauma is a part of life, but it does not have to be a life sentence.

  • When the following show up, it is a sign that the system is stuck in overwhelm:
  • normal functioning (work, friends, family, normal activities) is compromised (after eight weeks)
  • symptoms last longer than eight weeks, and do NOT decrease
  • suicidal thoughts/feelings

PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, is a medically diagnosed disorder that has specific symptoms and signs. PTSD has varying degrees of severity and can be debilitating. Some symptoms include: intrusive flashbacks, bad dreams, intrusive frightening thoughts; strong feelings of guilt, depression or worry; emotional numbness; avoidance activities or places; withdrawal from work or social engagements; feeling “on edge”, angry outbursts or difficulty moderating emotions.

PTSD is treatable with professional and experienced help.

How to help yourself?

  • Seek comfort and support: Ask for help when needed. Take steps to prepare for another event.
  • Re-establish a routine in daily life: There is comfort in the familiar. If possible, return to work, regular meal and sleep/waking times and activities with family/community members.
  • Keep yourself engaged in constructive and uplifting activities.
  • Connect with others: be careful not to isolate yourself too much. Participate in support groups, family, community and activities.
  • Reclaim your sense of power: Recognise your coping skills, strengths and adaptability in the face of challenge.
  • Minimize exposure to media and/or gossip about the event.
  • Acknowledge and accept your feelings and those of others: We each react differently to challenge. There is no right or wrong.
  • Prioritise stress reduction. Relaxation is a necessity, as is proper sleep and nutrition.
  • Get back into your body! Research shows that activities such as yoga help the system reorganise itself back to balance.
  • Seek professional help for yourself or a loved one, if needed. Trauma can be dealt with and overcome with the proper tools and support.

Resources for support: