Trauma: Opportunity for change and growth

Trauma is a natural reaction to abnormal circumstances, crisis and life events on which the person was not prepared for; as whole beings we react to these, sometimes, unbearable experiences. Trauma responses is viewed as the human ability to protect itself through self-protective stress responses by the brain and body to enhance our survival. Some misunderstanding about trauma exist, the focus should not only be on the incident itself, but also the resilience and potential to make sense, heal and grow from the horrific experience. Not all people exposed to crisis present with trauma and stress reactions; resilience allows people to productively adapt after traumatic experiences.

A person could be threatened in many ways and we don’t always know how to make sense of some life experiences. Unfortunately, people are increasingly more exposed to upsetting incidents that causes stress and trauma responses. The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas serves as an example where large groups of people were traumatised, injured and killed. Traumatic experiences can also include a range of events. It could be a once of incident or a range of critical events which is experienced as crisis, threatening, shocking, sudden and intensely fearful.

Unexpectedly losing a loved one, crime, abuse, violence, injury, health problems, tragedy, threat, heartache, crisis and trauma is part of life. Witnessing a critical event, aggression and a wide range of interpersonal conflict is also associated with stress and trauma reactions. Faced with horrifying experiences, people could respond with extreme horror, dreadfulness, fear or helplessness. The trauma response occurs when people cannot make sense or comprehend disturbing experiences.

The trauma response could be briefly described as a natural reaction on an unnatural experience; the essence of trauma is that the experience is mostly unexpected, overwhelming, unbelievable and unbearable. Traumatic experiences could also unproductively affect groups such as the family or communities; people find it difficult to trust others again and the world is perceived as an unkind, dangerous and hostile place. However, trauma is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances which the person was not prepared for and is an emotional, biological and psychological reaction to unbearable experiences. The various responses observed in literature is not a given as all of us are unique and will react in our specific ways.

Trauma and stress response engages the activation of parts of the nervous system that is responsible for survival, the person would respond on cognitive, behavioural and biological levels. The autonomic nervous system prepares for a flight or fright and release the associated neurotransmitters and hormones. Memory is accessed for information on survival strategies and behaviours to deal with the crisis. The three stages of response were identified in 1946 by Selye as (General Adaption Syndrome): alarm, resistance and exhaustion. As a reaction to trauma, continuous stress affects the thinking, emotions, reasoning as well as physical and psychological aspects of the person.

In the alarm stage, the person experiences cognitive clarity and biological arousal and in the second stage resistance is accompanied by coping strategies to deal with continuing stress. The person reacts on cognitive and biological levels for survival and coping. The last stage, exhaustion presents where vitality is run down by efforts to rest and simultaneous arousal. The person’s psychological and physical energy becomes exhausted; in short, the coping strategies are no longer effective. These reactions can affect the capacity to cope with other forms of stress and general everyday difficulties.

The conscious mind does not have access to all the details of the event as these experiences are distorted or denied, a form of protection of the self. Details about the event might be forgotten or vaguely remembered or only some parts might be recalled. We remember significant experiences, whether they were pleasant or unpleasant, and memories from traumatic experiences will not simply disappear. Memories, flashbacks and re-experiencing the emotions surrounding the event might reoccur; unpleasant memories affects the person’s interpretation of the world, self and others. Persons could present with re-experiencing the event through flashbacks, anguishing dreams, repetitive intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance and avoidance of linked stimuli or people associated with the event. Flashbacks and memories present even if the person attempts to control them. Emotional numbing could also present where it is better to “feel nothing” than experiencing painful emotions, also a form of protecting the self.

Professional help should always be sought if a person is concerned, but trauma and stress also creates the opportunity for change and growth. Following a horrific event; anxiety, fear and stress might also be experienced and these responses are biological attempts to handle, cope and adapt to the experience. Drawn out exhaustion stages and continuous presence of stress hormones can result in psychological agony and health implications. As we are biological and psychological beings, a combination of medical treatment and psychotherapy would address the wholeness of the person. Exposure to threatening environments causes psychological discomfort, but we should be slow to pathologise natural reactions to traumatic events. Not all people develop unproductive implications; resilience is also found to be a defensive mechanism allowing productive adaption and further development of the person. Resilience is the ability to heal and “bounce back” to live a full and actualising life.

Medical intervention, psychotherapy, counselling and the assistance of family, community and significant others are of importance during the recuperation process. As human beings we are fascinatingly complex, but distinctively resilient. Resilience is an inherent human trait and productive coping mechanism and refers to the ability to cope and recover. People might not always be aware of their inner strength and potential to recover from crisis and trauma. Strengths of the person is found in internal and external aspects such as personal, family and community characteristics. Referring to the recent Las Vegas shooting and community characteristics, what fascinated me as I was watching the CNN broadcast, was that the community immediately presented with strengths. People rushed to the scene to provide transport to hospitals for the injured, assist emergency services and others lined up at blood donation services.  Restaurant owners provided meals to the emergency services personnel and hospital staff. Many other stories of compassion, altruism and strengths emerged as the newscast unfolded. When resilience and strengths are viewed as the outcomes of crisis, the focus will no longer be on pathology, but rather on peoples’ desires and their ability to develop according to their own self-determination.

We can conceptualise our abilities and strengths to achieve the change, growth, goals and live the lives we desire. Traumatic experiences and crisis creates opportunity to reformulate ourselves and to start growing in a new direction by discovering our strengths. People have the ability and potential to change and grow from crisis to a more actualising person. Strength based approaches would focus on this potential to endlessly develop; crisis is then viewed as an opportunity for further development. Crisis slows us down and provide the opportunity to rediscover complete appreciation of the self, others, life and the manner we want to live our lives. Crisis turns into the opportunity to determine and develop strengths, resilience and innovative ways to be in the world.

Each person has an underlying flow of movement toward constructive fulfilment of the person’s inherent possibilities. Striving towards change and growth demonstrates that within all persons there is a natural tendency toward a more complex and complete development; the terms that Carl Rogers most often used as the actualising tendency or self-actualisation. The Rogerian approach provide flexibility, openness and freedom in which human potential can freely flow and thrive, despite the level of crisis the person is experiencing. No matter the nature of the crisis, there is always a human being aiming to make sense of his/her own existence. That person seeks to be heard, to be understood, but most of all... we all need to know that we will be okay. We need to realise that we do have control and are able to survive and re-construct ourselves, at least there must be someone unconditionally believing that I would be able to gain the inner strength and human potential to heal.

A refreshing new read is a book by my friend and colleague, Dr Barbara Louw, titled: Roots and all – Dealing with embitterment. Coming from the disciplines of Theology, Spirituality, Traumatology and Psychology; the book presents with strong undertones of clinical, strengths, person-centred and spiritual concepts. Personally, I find Barbara’s focus on health and wellbeing exceptionally stimulating. The book gives an understanding of “wellness” and “un-wellness” in a holistic systems paradigm. Barbara introduces the clinical concept of Posttraumatic Embitterment Reaction, but also provides holistic approaches and guidelines to healing, wholeness and forgiveness. Dr Louw’s book (Louw, LB. 2016. Roots and all: dealing with embitterment. Pretoria: Aquilla Advisors) can be ordered at: info@aquillasa.co.za

More local and international articles, information and brochures on anxiety, panic, trauma and PTSD is available on THE SOUTH AFRICAN DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY GROUP’s website: http://www.sadag.org

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