When I first started writing my book on trauma and then this blog, I thought I would be writing for a very particular group of people who had experienced a particular trauma: those who had experienced repeated trauma—survivors of child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, gang violence and those who had fought in or lived through war.
But over the last few years there has been such a consistent stream violence from global or homegrown terrorism and shootings that it feels now like I am writing for everyone. People who might have said ‘I don’t need to know about trauma,’ now really do need to understand it. They want to understand it for themselves or people they love or work with.
Why is understanding trauma helpful? Understanding trauma helps you cope and helps you heal. It helps you to keep your brain and heart working in a way that supports growth and healing rather than perpetuating trauma.
But if I wasn’t actually there, can it really affect me? The short answer is yes. The people who were actually near the trade towers, or on the finish line of the Boston Marathon, or in a Paris café or a Brussel’s airport will be coping with more severe experiences of trauma. But thanks to a never ending barrage of media –everyone is subject to a lot of incoming violent information. As it turns out, seeing, visually taking in the event, dominates in trauma. Seeing is so powerful that even if you didn’t see it, even if it were described to you, you would register a visual tape of the event. Your brain creates a memory of seeing it, being there—even if you weren’t. Whether it was television and the internet, whether you actually lived through the mass shooting or bombing, or just watched it on television, your memory absorbed it as traumatic. Yes, the people who lived through it have more to deal with, but everyone who has watched it repeatedly has now been exposed to days of trauma. And this has now happened repeatedly. This is why I recommend turning off your television during these events. You don’t need more and more memories of a terrifying event.
When you are hit with the images—the hours of CNN replaying the same footage over and over, your body responds in a predictable way: your body releases adrenalin, the stress hormone, to prepare your body for fight or flight. This cascade of stress hormones has an intended job: It raises your blood pressure so that your muscles can get more oxygen to work harder—to run away or fight, and it tells your brain to narrow your focus. It instills fear and vigilance so that you are more likely to pay attention to what might hurt you. Essentially, adrenaline is your emergency response system. And by and large your system doesn’t care whether the threat is real or imagined. Real or on TV. Your body and brain are designed to over-anticipate threats.
And this can be a good thing in an actual crisis. You want to be able to react in a way that helps you survive. Survivors from today’s subway bombing talked about being focused on getting out of the train and finding an exit. This focus helped them get out. They weren’t distracted by anything else and they didn’t get overwhelmed by emotion.
But when we aren’t actually, physically under threat, but behave as if we were—this is where the impact of vicarious trauma is seen. Trauma is a stressor and high levels of stress make us behave in certain predictable ways: our cognitive focus narrows: we take in less information and we don’t think using our whole expansive brains. We get more biased towards others: we are more likely to want to be with people ‘like us’ and less likely to be inclusive. We get more rigid and less flexible. Trauma makes you want predictability—so instead of the best answer and outcomes, we are more likely to choose whatever feels familiar. And it can even take away our sense of a future—either we lose our sense of an expanded future, or we spend extra energy in our minds protecting ourselves from the trauma we just witnessed so we begin to live in an ever-present-past.
I watched some of this dynamic again after the Boston Marathon bombing, after Charleston, after Paris. After Colorado Springs and San Bernadino. And now after Brussels.
A traumatic event triggers fears: 1) fear of helplessness, 2) fear of another, more fearful event (fear of fear), 3) fear of separation from loved ones, and 4) fear of death.
When we talk about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder we are talking about a specific set of criteria for a psychological diagnosis. And the criteria specifically rules out exposure to trauma through the media, pictures, television or movies.
So I am not talking about diagnosis: I am talking about impact. There are a lot of things that can affect us sub-clinically and have an effect on our health and well-being. I am thinking of our diets: how eating too much sugar in our diet can begin to cause insulin resistance but not outright diabetes. Or how a lack of sleep impacts our ability to function. You don’t have to have an insomnia diagnosis to be affected by a lack of sleep.
During the era of the Virginia Tech shooting I was an adjunct professor at Northeastern. And the shooting changed my experience as I went to class each day that semester. I found myself noticing where the emergency exits were and the fire alarms. I looked for ways out of the building and out of my room. I wondered whether I would move the table or the desk in front of the door and how many of us it would take to move it, and then hold it there. I wondered whether I was brave enough to save my students. And then I would catch myself, and try to remind myself that it probably wasn’t going to happen and that I needed to concentrate on my work. I needed to come back to the present.
The problem with the trauma response is that it is actually such a well-designed system for survival—and can run in the background as your operating system so well that you may not even notice it or notice how it is changing your behavior. But it is changing the way you take in information, it is changing the way you feel and express emotion, it is changing the way you experience relationships and communities. A trauma response is designed to help you survive: it is not the best way for anyone to grow or thrive—in fact it will get in the way of growth and health.
So what can you do to support yourself and others through this and get back to a place of health and growth?
1. Turn off the T.V.
2. Take Care of Your Body: Trauma’s first impact is always our body—our physiological systems. So the first thing you need to do is to bring your stress level back down. Shake it off, dance it off, walk it off. Get moving, eat well, drink water, get sleep. Your body was hit with a big stressor and needs recovery. Do whatever you do to feel better, to soothe, to relax. By bringing your physiology back to a better state, your brain will shift gears too.
3. Reconnect with Gratitude. Trauma is a world where you feel helpless and hopeless. Where there is never enough to cope. The antidote to this is the reminder of what we do have, and what we love. Say a round of gratitude at dinner or your staff meeting: just saying something you are grateful for, no matter how small or large. Write down what you are grateful for each evening. Think of all the people you love and all the people who love you.
4. Connect with Others, especially Across Groups. Trauma makes us want to pull inwards towards our clans, however we define them. In order to heal and in order to keep our communities healthy we need to counter this survival behavior with growth behavior—we need to reach out instead of pulling back. Do something kind for someone. Smile at a stranger. Ask if you can help. Inspire your families, workplaces and communities of faith to engage and heal the larger community. Help others be their best self.
© 2016 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD