As a mental health provider living in the city of Charlottesville, I’ve been spending the last two weeks helping my clients and fellow citizens emotionally unravel what has happened both to them and our city. They are struggling to make sense of what happened here, to sort out the why and how. They, we, the city are trying to heal.
The reactions I’ve seen and heard have been varied and nuanced. Some who were at the rally even witnessed the awful car crash, found themselves endlessly scanning the Internet for images, were having nightmares, feeling panicky being in a crowd of more than a few people. Others who did not take part shared with them a sense of invasion, violation, while still others talked about guilt – I should have been there instead of going out of town; I should have not been afraid and instead stepped up like those who had the courage to do so.
And then there are some who say they have actually found themselves thinking little about the actual events, but not long into a conversation talking about a sense of vulnerability, a vague but persistent anxiety about the future, a general and sudden awareness that bad things might happen – that their cough will turn into something more serious, that something will happen to their children at school, that the economy will crash. Life seems suddenly fragile.
All these reactions have made me aware of the subtlety of trauma. I don’t consider myself an expert on trauma, and there are undoubtedly many other experts on this website who are more knowledgeable than me. That said, I offer some observations and suggestions based on what I’ve seen over the past few weeks.
The nature of trauma
Trauma is individualized. Someone attends a protest and walks away feeling proud and confident for what she did, while others have haunting images and nightmares of men with rifles; some are in a serious car accident or experience a medical emergency and are truly able to take it in stride, while others are afraid to drive or are overly sensitive to any changes in their health and can’t seem to be able to put it behind them. Trauma is in the eyes of the beholder; each person’s particular experience and triggers are unique.
Older wounds get stirred. Because all traumas settle into the same area of the brain and are linked, a current event may trigger older ones. Those, for example, who lost a parent at an early age may be particularly sensitive to the sense of grief that comes with the ending of a relationship or a job, even if they initiated it. Someone who was abused as a child may be particularly sensitive to any minute signs of violence. A person exposed to neglect may feel particularly sensitive to signs that friends and family don’t care.
You become hypervigilant. When a traumatic event occurs, your protective brain is determined, or actually overdetermined, to keep you out of further trouble. It is like having a hypersensitive guard dog barking at the tree branch slapping against a window. Because traumatic events lodge themselves in the non-verbal part of your brain, these triggers ignite the raw images of past trauma and their emotions. After an assault you automatically begin to panic when hearing footsteps behind you; someone tailgating you after a car accident can send you into an anxiety-filled road-rage; the returned soldier is reaching for the gun he doesn’t have when he suddenly hears a chair scrape across the floor at Burger King.
Life becomes more fragile. Vulnerability hangs about you. Bad things can happen at any moment. This obviously further fuels the hypervigilance – that cough can be something more serious – but for others it shakes them into a new perspective on their lives. They realize that they need to stop treading water. Rather than tolerating that lousy job, they need to finally have the courage to break out and start their own business or switch careers; rather than staying in an unsatisfying relationship, they need to move on. If not now, when?
What to do
There are both first-aid and longer-term strategies to managing a trauma. Here are some suggestions:
Talk. What helps us process trauma is words. By connecting words to the raw images and emotions, we can now begin to break them apart, to label and shift and create a narrative that makes some sense. Talking to others and having them simply listen, sharing experiences with others dealing with the same trauma, journaling, all help. What doesn’t help is not talking, adapting an I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it, good-tin-soldier mentality.
Push back with your rational mind; seek support. Replaying tapes in your head or in reality (watching videos, looking at Facebook pages) is helpful for processing to a point. But if you are feeling as hyperalert on Day 100 as you were on Day 1, feeling obsessed and unable to pull yourself away from replaying events you’re getting stuck, you’re not, through no fault of your own, moving forward in the healing process.
You need to be able to step back and assess how you are doing in order to gain some perspective. You want to push back with your rational mind at those times when anxiety is triggered in order to not strengthen those traumatic circuits in your brain. And if can’t you want to seek professional help. You don’t want what is unfolding to turn into a new normal.
Realize what you can and cannot control; seek balance. Once the trauma hits it’s easy to feel out-of-control and reactive 24/7. The counter to this overwhelming feeling is realizing what you can personally control (yourself, your behavior) and what you can’t (Nazis, other drivers). This will help you feel less victimized by your overall life.
Similarly, balance out your life. You may not be able to reshape the government or the economy, but you can make sure your read books with your kids at bedtime or take pride in a good day’s work. Proactively building in “normal” activities in your everyday routines will give you a sense of control and help pull your head out the tunnel that it has been in.
Channel your energies. Once the mental dust begins to settle it’s a good time to step back and take stock. Is there a way to channel your energies, turn your fears into action, apply the lessons that these events have taught you? Is it time to relook at your life priorities?
Just as trauma has a unique impact, the healing has its own logic. Be patient with yourself. Be open to others. Believe that this too will pass.