Many people suffer from symptoms of trauma without even realizing it. Trauma, as defined by the DSM5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th ed.), is exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation. The exposure must result from one or more of the following scenarios:
- One directly experiences the traumatic event.
- One witnesses the traumatic event in the person
- One Learns that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or a close friend.
- One experiences first hand repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event.
- The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in the individual’s social interactions, capacity to work or other important areas of functioning.
Often times we are involved in a trauma that may not directly affect us but may affect our community or planet. We listen to stories about it, we may see pictures of it, we may spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about it. Although the trauma may not have happened to us, we feel like it has. One may experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress even though they didn’t even witness the event!
The behavioral symptoms of trauma fall into four distinctive categories:
- Re-experiencing-spontaneous memories of the traumatic event, recurrent dreams related to it, flashbacks or other intense or prolonged psychological distress.
- Avoidance-doing everything in your power to avoid any situation that is a reminder of the traumatic event.
- Negative cognitions and mood- represents a myriad of feelings, from a persistent and distorted sense of blame of self or to others, to estrangement from others or markedly diminished interest in activities, to inability to remember key aspects of the event.
- Arousal- is marked by aggressive, reckless, or self-destructive behavior, sleep disturbances, hypervigilance or related problems.
After experiencing a trauma, either by actually being the one involved, witnessing the trauma happening to someone else, or even just hearing about it, one can feel tired, moody, and anxious. One can feel as if they are not residing in their bodies-like they are floating above the body. They can feel as if things just aren’t real. They may question if the event actually happened. One can have difficulty sleeping and when asleep have scary dreams. One may lose weight for no apparent reason. It can be very difficult to focus and even the easiest tasks seem to be difficult. The world may seem very unsafe and this makes it very difficult to function.
These symptoms can sneak up on you. If they persist beyond a month or so, you may need to get professional help with a practitioner who is trained in specific modalities that help a person calm their nervous system down and clear the trauma from the body and the psyche. Sometimes, when the symptoms are severe, specific medications may be prescribed.
In the meantime, if you have experienced a traumatic event and are feeling uncomfortable there are steps you can take to help yourself in the present time.
- Take time out. Time heals all. If you can, take some time to rest and meditate before going back into life full swing. This may be a day, a weekend, or a week or longer. The goal is to allow the feelings to come up and release from your body.
- Treat yourself kindly by eating well, moving your body, and sleep. If you can’t sleep, then rest. Honor how you are feeling. You may feel like doing nothing and that’s ok.
- Talk about it. Choose a person that you feel safe with to talk and have emotions about the scary traumatic situation. Speak about how you’re feeling about the situation.
- Avoid numbing practices that help you avoid your feelings and take you out of the healing process, i.e., drinking, drugging, gambling, shopping, gossiping, focusing on others, shopping, playing games, etc. We only do these things to avoid those negative feelings that are coming up.
Life happens- the good, the bad and the ugly-all of it. Unfortunately we are not immune to difficult times. When you are faced with circumstances that are disturbing to you, be sure to be kind to yourself and have the faith to know that better times are to come. If you find yourself having a very difficult time coping, please get professional help. Treatment doesn’t have to last very long and may be the difference between living a fulfilling life or one of distress and despair.
Catherine Anesi, LCSW specializes in helping people transform their lives. She is a licensed clinical social worker and sees clients in her office in Croton. She also leads groups and retreats that aide in transformation. If you would like to contact her please email her at [email protected] or visit her website at www.catherineanesilcsw.com and facebook at Catherine Anesi, LCSW, RM.