Community Connection: How to deal with trauma
September 21, 2013
Steamboat Springs — In last week's Community Connection column, "Crisis Response Team offers model for traumatic events," we reviewed the Steamboat Springs School District's Crisis Response Team that serves our children by responding with facts and knowledge, by respectfully understanding the range of emotions people reveal as they absorb the traumas and grieve, and by offering a safe and trusting context within which people feel supported and not judged.
This week, we will look more deeply into how we experience traumas, store memories linked to emotions that may resurface without warning and deal with the resulting stress. We also will examine ways to deal with stress that can result from the sudden appearance of these memories.
The stuff of traumas
Traumas are difficult, often tragic and overwhelming experiences that may arouse strong and unwanted emotions and thoughts. A traumatic experience can change our lives forever. Trauma is a radical change imposed by impersonal forces outside our control. Sadly, traumas occur every day. A job loss, a car crash, the death of a loved one, divorce, bankruptcy, serious injury, murder and suicide all are traumatic experiences to the people involved.
Losing the sense that we and those for whom we care are secure from the impersonal and dangerous forces of the world is the essence of trauma. Among the most serious types of trauma, the kind of trauma that might result in post-traumatic stress disorder, are child abuse and neglect, rape, military combat and the suicide or murder of a friend or loved one.
Trauma may happen once or repeatedly. There are disasters that are natural and impersonal and disasters that are caused by human error. When a trauma occurs as the result of another person’s intent or unwillingness to take appropriate steps to assure safety, people experience it as a betrayal.
Bullying can be experienced as trauma because the person who is bullied often feels that he or she is powerless to protect himself or herself and that those in a position of authority fail to do so. Mass shootings are clear examples of a traumatic event, both for the victims and the families of those who lose loved ones. When communities are exposed to such events frequently, as the U.S. has been, people may feel vulnerable and unsafe.
Finally, traumatic events vary by place and ecology. Urban areas have more gang shootings while Colorado has traumas caused by fires and floods.
The neuroscience of memories and emotions
Our body, brain, mind, sense, memories and nervous systems — the stuff of our consciousness and our psychology — are intricately connected. Memories and emotions aroused by traumas, especially fear, form neural pathways that connect the nervous system to the neurotransmitters and peptides, which ready muscles and major organs for a fight, flight or freeze response. This is the body’s survival mechanism.
Chronic trauma leaves our nervous system in a chronic survival mode. Memories, conscious and repressed, can trigger this survival mechanism even when we are not aware of it. At these times, we might feel increasingly depressed and anxious or distressed without being fully aware of why we are feeling distressed.
However, it is possible to separate traumatic memories from distressing emotions. Even after experiencing trauma, it is possible to carve out new and healthier neural pathways through prayer, meditation and talk therapy with experienced clinicians.
Such techniques as rational-emotive therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive restructuring and eye movement and desensitization reprocessing have proven helpful. Certain medications also have been found useful by psychiatrists who work with men and women who have been in combat, who have suffered extreme trauma, such as rape, or with people with dissociative disorder, a mental health classification.
Next week, we will lay out the nature of the role we carry out as a caring, friend, neighbor, colleague or loved one.
This column is written in consultation with the boards and staff of Advocates Building Peaceful Communities, Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide and Steamboat Mental Health as well as other social workers, clinical psychologists, therapists, religious leaders and residents of Routt County.