Adversity is inevitable. Researchers have estimated that 75 per cent of all people experience some form of trauma in life – the loss or suffering of a loved one, the diagnosis of an illness, the pain of divorce or separation, the shock of an accident, assault or disaster. Estimates suggest that around a fifth of all people are likely to experience a potentially traumatic event within a given year.
When we experience psychological trauma, our bodies go into shock and our minds are overwhelmed. Imagine a Christmas snow globe: shake it and the snow flurries: over time, it settles. How long the now remains unsettled depends on how vigorously the globe was shaken in the first place. So it is with the trauma that shakes up our mental world.
If you have recently experienced an event that was traumatic to you and you are overwhelmed with feelings it is also vital to take care of yourself in the present while the snow is yet to settle.
There are five things that are often helpful for people to manage their emotions and look after themselves when they are feeling overwhelmed:
1. Check that you are physically safe
Sometimes people feel so chaotic in the aftermath of adversity that they put themselves in danger by leaving appliances switched on, driving carelessly, crossing the road with looking and so on. If this sounds like you, take time to think about what you can do to remove yourself from danger.
2. Check that you are getting medical, psychological and legal help if you need it
When people are vulnerable they need others around them that can protect them and shelter them in some way. Trauma often leaves people with a long list of problems to sort out. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness. People need to be able to reach out when they are vulnerable or lack the resources or expertise to help themselves.
3. Stay physically active
The mind and body are intertwined. Your physical state affects your mental state. For that reason it is important to stay active. You needn’t go to the gym every day, but you do need to make sure that your body is active. Can you walk instead of driving? Can you take the stairs, rather than the elevator?
4. Make sure you keep pleasurable things in your life, and try to maintain routines as much as possible
Though you may feel unmotivated, take time to do the things you used to enjoy, such as reading, gardening, listening to music, eating with friends. You might not be able to maintain your routines at the same level as before, but don’t let them slip altogether.
5. Check that you are eating well and getting enough sleep
Good nutrition is important. Make sure you are getting fruit and vegetables, drink water and avoid processed foods. Avoid caffeine from the late afternoon onwards. Ban the television and the computer from the bedroom. And switch the phone to silent. Switch off all the lights in the bedroom including pilot lights.
These may seem obvious, but it is all too easy to let these five basics slip.
And for family and friends of those who are in the midst of a crisis these are ways that you can lend a helping hand. For example, extend an invitation to go for a walk. Or offer to meet for coffee or to go to a show. Cook dinner for the person. Suggest the name of someone who can help practically or offer yourself. Be alert to signs of danger and help to think through a solution.
What doesn’t kill us: the new psychology of posttraumatic growth (Basic Books, January, 2013)