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Mental Health Monday: Processing Trauma

Trauma comes in many forms and can cause long-term effects, ranging from mental and emotional responses to physical symptoms. For the purposes of this post, I’m concentrating on mental and emotional trauma, which HelpGuide.org divides into three categories:

  • One-time events, such as an accident, injury, or a violent attack, especially if it was unexpected or happened in childhood.
  • Ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, battling a life-threatening illness or experiencing traumatic events that occur repeatedly, such as bullying, domestic violence, or childhood neglect.
  • Commonly overlooked causes, such as surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life), the sudden death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship, or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, especially if someone was deliberately cruel.

These traumas can leave us feeling frightened and vulnerable even years later, and when experienced in childhood the impact can be felt for decades.

Emotional trauma can come in many forms, such as a physically abusive parent, and emotionally abusive partner, bullying, car accidents, or the emotional or physical loss of a loved one to name a few. The result is a combination of grief and fear–the person grieves for the “before” times, the status quo, while also knowing it is now out of reach. Even if outwardly things haven’t changed, their new knowledge or emotional state makes it impossible to return to the mental state they were in before. At the same time, this change leaves them frightened and unsure, and their nervous system is stuck on high alert, constantly looking for the next threat.

The results of these events can be varied and change in number and severity from person to person, and event to event. One person might shrug off an event, or process it quickly, while their sibling remains caught in the event for years after. Both responses are valid; their brains are trying to process abnormal events, and there’s no guidebook for that. But there are things we can do as individuals to cope, and things we can do for loved ones to help them cope (related: How to help someone having a panic attack).

Frequently, symptoms ease with time, but sometimes they intensify, which is a sign of PTSD–and no, it’s not just for soldiers, though it is very common among those who have served. It’s also possible that coping methods that were used before  for minor traumas–for example, journaling, a favorite hobby, spending time with family or pets–is no longer effective. This can add to feelings of insecurity, depression, and anxiety.

In these situations, it is necessary to seek professional help, either from a medical doctor or a psychiatrist, though these can be terrifying prospects for a person suffering from trauma, particularly if that trauma is related to the medical field–for example, a doctor who repeatedly shames a patient for their weight while severe symptoms go ignored, a surgery that doesn’t go well, leaving the patient with extreme psychological and physical pain, or being forced onto a medication with severe side effects as a child.

If this is the case, creating a safe space is essential, both mentally and physically. Supportive relationships are essential.

While I am not a medical professional, I have experienced trauma and anxiety. I’ve had trouble leaving the house. Below, I will outline some of my experiences and recommendations, but I highly recommend you follow the links below (and above) for advice on dealing with trauma, whether it is your or that of someone you care about.

Right now we all live in uncertain times. Just about everyone I know is running on heightened anxiety right now, because nearly all of them are in the “high risk” category for Covid-19. Thankfully, they are all still employed, but whether your concerns are physical or economical, there’s a lot to worry about. If you are feeling anxious to the point you can’t function normally, then I advise starting with the steps below, but please seek help from a professional. Just talking to someone on a confidential basis can be helpful, even if there are no medical recommendations.

A Safe Space

My first step to managing my anxiety is to find a safe space. For me, this is always my bedroom. It’s a place where I can close the door. When my anxiety was really bad a couple of years ago, I found myself fighting the urge to hide in the closet, because dark, enclosed places have always felt safe to me (this is kind of ironic, because I’m also a bit claustrophobic). I would close the curtains, put on noise cancelling headphones, wrap up in a heavy blanket, and sit on my bed with a plushie or a cat until I could breathe normally again. Any kind of noise was too much.

Your idea of a safe space might be different. You might need light. You might need music or a tv show. You might need to be with another person. Define what your needs are, and create a space you can retreat to that meets those needs. Keep a Bug-Out bag nearby with everything you need to calm down. You might find it helpful to write out flashcards listing things that you may need or want, as many people having panic responses become nonverbal. For example “Can I have some water?” or “Can I have a hug?” If you are prone to having anxiety attacks when away from home, a mini-Bug-Out bag might be something you want to carry on your person or tuck into your briefcase, purse, or backpack.

A Safe Person

This is the hardest thing, I think. I am lucky that I live with one of the two “safe people” in my life. But I know far too many who do not, who live in toxic environments. Please do not put your trust in people who do not deserve it, as they can make traumatic experiences even worse. If a person tells you to “just get over it,” or that “you’re overreacting,” then they are not a safe person and are not suitable for this role.

Your safe person should be someone patient and caring. Someone who will give you a hug if you need it, but will also back off if you do not want to be touched. They are the person who will make sure you eat and drink water, and take any necessary medications.

Drink Water

There are several reasons for this. It’s good for your body. Dehydration can cause headaches and increase the severity of emotional or psychological issues. It helps our bodies absorb vitamins and medications. The act of drinking can also help regulate your breathing, which helps you calm down.

And, if you’re at all like me, I cry when I’m stressed. A lot. I always have to dehydrate.

Reset Your Thoughts

This is harder than is sounds, but it is possible, at least on a temporary basis. Research has shown that playing Tetris helps prevent trauma from imprinting on patient’s brains. It slows down one part of the brain while activating another.

Not a Tetris fan? Here are some other video games I’ve found that help with stress and anxiety. All of these can be downloaded to your phone, and most are free (though some do have in-app purchases)

Slidey
Animal Crossing Pocket Camp
Solitaire (I like deal one Spider Solitaire)
Stardew Valley ($14.99)
2048

I have also been known to play endless games of solitaire by hand. I like the feel of of the cards in my hands.

Communicate

Talking is hard. Harder still when we’re dealing with stress and trauma. You may want to talk to a friend, or you might feel more comfortable working with a therapist or counselor. Verbal communication might be an added level of difficulty, so you might feel better writing things down, or telling your feelings to a camera or audio recorder, and then playing it back in a therapy session. You might also find that the best way of expressing yourself is through visual art or some other medium. These are all valid forms of expression that can lead to healing.

Next Steps

With your safe person, discuss your next steps. I am not saying that they should tell you want to do; I am saying to use them as a sounding board. Sometimes saying something out loud helps it make sense inside your head. Discuss things you can do at home to help limit anxiety and reduce “high alert” feelings, such as going for daily walks, playing with the family pet, or taking a “time out” after work to sit alone with a sitcom and some hot chocolate. Do you think therapy would be helpful? Are you willing to try it? Would online therapy be better for you than in person? What about over the phone or text? Do you want to try a low dose of medication to see if it helps? There are many options, so make sure you consider several of them before making your choice.

Conclusion

I would just like to reiterate once again that I am not a medical professional, just a person who has dealt with anxiety and trauma who wants to help others. I have done therapy. I’ve been on medication. I’m a consummate journaler, but I know what it’s like when coping methods suddenly stop working, or when an unexpected event–even something normal and every day–brings up old pain and fear and sends you reeling.

Please check out the links below for more recommendations and information.

Further reading:
Phases of Trauma Recovery 
The Importance of Processing Trauma
Talking vs Processing in Trauma Therapy
Treating PTSD
Cognitive Processing
Traumatised
How Unprocessed Trauma is Stored in the Body


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