Everyone experiences trauma. Parents age and die, marriages suddenly end, and businesses collapse. Life is full of distressing events – and learning to cope is vital.
The Nature of Trauma
Of course, what is traumatic for one person may leave another unaffected. Nevertheless, most people who have endured a traumatic experience will be likely to suffer from at least some of the following: insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, depression, and loss of appetite. More specifically, trauma survivors tend to suffer flashbacks; a feeling that they are unsafe or at risk; a sense that nothing is quite real; passivity, interspersed with sudden, disproportionate outbursts of anger; a disregard for their own safety, to the point of inviting personal harm; a love of routine and repetition; and, finally, a general withdrawal from the world.
After the initial shock a sense of numbness often takes hold. This numbness can take days, weeks, or even years to subside. Understandably, many welcome this and assure those around them that everything is fine. And in a sense they are right, things are fine (for now). Friends and family will shake their heads and praise the individual for being so brave and for coping so well. Unfortunately, when the numbness wears off, those same loved ones may be shocked by the tears, the reckless behavior, and the sudden outbursts of anger.
But what counts as a trauma? First, it must be emphasized that this is not a competition. For one person, the breakdown of their relationship may come as a welcome relief, for a second it may seem like the end of the world. Obviously, sexual assault, serious car accidents, extreme physical violence, or the death of a child are traumatic experiences. But many of life’s more common events can be traumatic as well: the death of a parent or grandparent, for example, or even the loss of a job. The psychoanalyst Otto Rank even believed that birth itself was a trauma. The degree of trauma also varies, depending partly on the circumstances, partly on individual temperament.
If you have been through a trauma of some kind, you must not neglect your health. So try and maintain your exercise regimen, and be sure to eat healthily. Above all, do not seek comfort in alcohol and drugs. Unfortunately, certain kinds of trauma can discourage self-care. Mugging, infidelity, and sexual assault often leave the victim feeling worthless – and people who feel worthless see little point in looking after themselves.
First, look at your diet. Avoid stimulants like caffeine and sugar. More generally, cut down on junk food. Instead, eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and as much oily fish as you can afford. Make your exercise gentle but regular. Ideally, get outside and take this exercise in natural light. A brisk walk with a friend rounded off by some yoga and deep breathing on a beach or in a park would be perfect.
Taking Back Control
Trauma involves the loss of power and control. If the victim had been able to prevent the car from crashing or stop the mugger from attacking them, then obviously they would have done so. But they could not. And this has taught them two painful and disturbing lessons: first, that they have very little control over the world, and second that terrible, painful, heartbreaking things can happen, often when they are least expected.
If you have been through a trauma of some kind, you need to re-assert power and control. Just because you cannot control everything, that does not mean you cannot control anything. For example, rape victims will often return to the place in which they were assaulted, as if in defiance of their attacker. But taking back control need not involve anything so extreme – or courageous. Simply tidying up your apartment may help. You could also throw away old junk, or make a list of all those little chores you have been putting off and work your way through them, ticking them off as you go. These may seem trivial, but the point is simply to re-assert your will and push back against that feeling of helpless passivity.
Writing can be especially helpful. If you feel strong enough, write down the details of the trauma, recording how you felt at the time and how it is affecting you now. A diary may prove especially helpful. You could record your dreams, for example, or your outbursts of anger. Writing things down in this way can be very empowering; you can master the events and re-shape them through your power over language. It will also enable you to process the emotions in a safe, controlled setting.
Taking Comfort in the Mundane
Trauma places enormous strain on the nervous system, which can take a long time to calm back down. Some have likened the effect to shaking a snowglobe or spinning the wheel of an upturned bicycle: you must wait for the flakes to settle and the wheel to stop turning. Obviously, you need to avoid stress as much as possible. But grounding yourself back in the ebb and flow of mundane life can also be very soothing. War veterans often say that, after the hell and noise of combat, simply walking to the local shop for a carton of milk and a newspaper, or sitting in the park smoking a cigarette, is heaven.
Nature is another wonderful healer. In a hectic, overcrowded world it can be difficult to find the time and space to be alone with nature, but do so whenever possible. Get out into the woods and fields and breathe deeply. Or sit by the edge of the sea and listen to the rhythmic rush and flow of the waves as they come in and out, in and out. Look up at the stars and lose yourself in the vastness and beauty of the cosmos. The more you allow nature to dwarf you, the calmer and happier you will feel. You are a part of something far bigger than you and, on the cosmic scale, your trauma simply doesn’t matter. The indifference of nature can be strangely comforting.
Never underestimate the seriousness of trauma. The precise nature of post-traumatic stress is still not fully understood and its effects can last for years, leading to nervous breakdowns and even agoraphobia. The tips offered here should help, but you must seek professional advice if you feel things spiralling out of control. One of the problems with trauma is the delayed reaction, which often catches people by surprise. Indeed, many do not even relate their anger or depression to the car crash or sexual assault they experienced months or years before. An online support forum for trauma survivors would help deepen your understanding of what is happening. Finally, place your trust in the greatest healer of all – time itself.
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