In the wake of trauma many people feel lost and alone. The person they were before the event occurred seems altered. Where they once felt strong and assured they now live in fear and uncertainty. While not every person will have this experience after going through a life-altering event many will. Trauma can alter how a person perceives the world but it does not change the core aspects of who you are as a person. For many to navigate the waters of a traumatic experience it takes utilizing both external and internal resources. Once those resources begin to be activated many will move towards healing and strength.
It is common for people to experience traumatic events. According to the National Center for PTSD about 50% of women and 60% of men will experience at least one trauma in their lifetime (2014) While not all of these events will turn into a mental health disorder we know that about 5.2 million people will experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) each year. In fact 10% of all women and 5% of all men will experience PTSD in their lifetime (Kessler, 1995). In addition it is common for people that have PTSD to display symptoms of depression, substance abuse, and various anxiety disorders. Without resources the effects of trauma can make it difficult for a person to function well.
Post Traumatic Stress disorder is defined by the American Psychological Association as, “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, such as terrorist attacks, motor vehicle accidents, rape, physical and sexual abuse, and other crimes, or military combat (2004).” The National Center for PTSD explains that the people most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event tend to fall into one of the following categories:
- Experienced direct exposure to the trauma as a victim or a witness
- Were seriously hurt during the traumatic event
- Went through a trauma that was ongoing or very severe
- Believed that you were in danger
- Believed that a family member was in danger
- Had a severe reaction during the event, such as crying, shaking, vomiting, or feeling separate from your surroundings
- Felt helpless during the trauma and were not able to help yourself or a loved one
You are also more likely to develop PTSD if you:
- Had an earlier life-threatening event or trauma, such as being abused as a child
- Have another mental health problem
- Have family members who have had mental health problems
- Have little support from family and friends
- Have recently lost a loved one, especially if it was not expected
- Have had recent, stressful life changes
- Drink a lot of alcohol
- Are a woman
- Are poorly educated
- Are younger
There is Hope
Even though there are many factors involved in developing PTSD as a result of a traumatic event it is important to know that there is hope. The way our bodies are wired prepares us to respond in a dangerous situation. If any of us were confronted with a dangerous animal our body would tell us whether we needed to fight the beast, run from the beast, or just stay still. Scientist refers to this phenomenon as “flight, fight, or freeze (Levine, 1997).” What often occurs in with trauma is a person gets stuck in flight, fight, or freeze which is operated by the sympathetic nervous system. Thus they continually operate in survival mode never returning to a normal level of response. As mentioned earlier the response tends to lead to symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.
Therapy for PTSD
The goal of therapy and healing for survivors of trauma has many components but is often characterized by three phases of treatment. The first phase usually centers on creating safety and developing various coping skills that will prepare a person for processing the trauma. The second phase focuses on processing the trauma narrative while learning to live in the now and not be consumed by the past. Finally, Courtois defines phase three as “creating new meaning and purpose, reestablishing important connections and integrating new skills and capacities, and rebuilding a life that is no longer defined by trauma and its effects (2008).” What is so striking about these phases is that they rely on the trauma survivor’s active participation.
When a person is sick a doctor and nurses are brought in to provide medical care. The extent of a patient’s participation may not exceed their willingness to accept medication and help. When a person is overcoming a traumatic event that has led to PTSD, Depression, Anxiety, or addiction the willingness to engage in treatment is brought to another level. There is courage to be honored in the journey of healing. It takes both internal strength and external effort that leads one to admire those that enter the journey.
Webster’s Dictionary defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to change or misfortune (2014).” While some people adjust easily after experiencing trauma many will take on the journey towards recovery. Depending on the type and frequency of trauma a person experiences the time of recovery can be relatively short and for others may take many years. Regardless of time frame all people that start the process of healing are exhibiting their own internal strength to survive. Sometimes this is as simple as picking up the phone and asking for help.
Karas-Miller also talks about our body’s natural desire to heal and the body’s ability to overcome traumatic symptoms when we focus on internal resources that already exist (2012). We all have pre-existing strengths and resources that guide our ability to cope with traumatic experiences. Whether a person is creative, athletic, curious, and resourceful, a leader, compassionate, kind, or any multitude of quality humans possess there is something inside of each person that can be used to recover from painful experiences. Psychologist William James once stated, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives (1993).” The difficulty often lies in uncovering strengths and resources that have been buried and overwhelmed by old messages and traumatic events.
Everyday people live out of their strengths without even knowing it. A person that sees a therapist to deal with a trauma has utilized an external resource that can lead to the discovery of more strengths and resources. People who have learned to dissociate and not think about their trauma have developed a coping skill that shows their innate ability to utilize coping skills. A person that uses substances to deal with trauma has found there is a possibility to calm their anxiety. People are resourceful and our bodies are always looking for ways to cope and find relief from the symptoms of trauma. When people learn to turn those efforts toward positive coping skills and strengths the journey of recovery goes to a new level.
Insoo Kim Berg and Scott Miller talk about our tendency to look at issues as a problem to be fixed. They continue to say that as people deal with adversity they build up more and more resources and strengths that can be used in the recovery process (1995). In other words not only do people possess many strengths before trauma occurs, new strengths will develop as a result of trauma. Many trauma survivors will not be able to notice this for themselves until a professional counselor or wise friend starts to reveal this truth to them. When those strengths are revealed they can be internalized and used during the recovery process.
Internal and external resources are vitally important as one recovers from trauma. External resources can include people, skills, information, organizations, nature, and variety of other sources. Internal resources include a person’s inherent strengths, abilities, spirituality, beliefs, and values (Woll, 2011). As these resources are discovered during the recovery process Woll tells us that the individual will continue to build more resilience. It’s like a snowball effect where focusing on strengths and resources leads to the discovery of more strengths and resources. Thus restoring hope to the individual that has faced a traumatic event and survived.
Reclaiming strength in the wake of trauma is an important element of recovery. Paired with other evidenced based approaches like Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Yoga, expressive arts, and other research supported models can help people move beyond the trauma. Not only can a person move towards who they were before the trauma, the strengths they developed during the traumatic event can enhance and surpass who they would have been without the trauma. It takes courage and strength to walk this path. Everyday millions of people that have experienced trauma in their life get out of bed and interact with the world. This act in itself shows a level of resilience that can be utilized in the movement toward healing. More than likely most people have interacted with other trauma survivors without knowing it. This has to do with people’s ability to adapt and continue moving forward. It has to do with the strength within that emerges even in the most difficult of times. Without even knowing it survivors are reclaiming their strength by living.
Berg, I.K. & Miller, S.D. (1995), The Miracle Method. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company.
Courtois, C. A. (2008). Complex trauma, complex reactions: Assessment and treatment. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 8(1), 86-100.
Friedman, S. (1993), The New Language of Change: Constructive Collaboration in Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford.
Kessler, R. C., Sonnega, A., Bromet, E., Hughes, M., & Nelson, C. B., (1995). Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey. Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol. 52, pp. 1048-1060.
Levine, Peter, Ph.D., Waking the Tiger : Healing Trauma : The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences, 1997
Miller-Karas, E. (2012, January 1). Trauma Resiliency Model. Retrieved February 2, 2015, from http://traumaresourceinstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/What-is-TRM_-Description-for-website-2012.pdf
Resilience. 2014. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved February 2, 2014, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hacker
The Effects of Trauma Do Not Have to Last a Lifetime. (2004, January 16). Retrieved February 2, 2015, from http://www.apa.org/research/action/ptsd.aspx
Woll, P. (2011). A Strength-based Approach Toward Trauma-informed Treatment and Recovery Support for Women . MI-PTE Fall Conference. Lecture