Trauma and caring for each other

The effects of trauma cannot be underestimated. When a person experiences a traumatic event, like a disaster, the impact on their mental health can be profound and enduring. There are individual differences depending on the person, the nature of the trauma, and the person’s level of direct involvement. Invariably, there is a powerful sense of loss. These psychological effects can, in turn, affect us physically.

We can experience a range of feelings, from anger to fear. Unexpectedly, we can be overcome with waves of a sadness. Yes, uncharacteristic teary moments too. Trauma can leave a person in a hyper-emotional state. But it can also leave a person in a state of numbness and detachment. Ironically, when a person is withdrawn, colleagues and friends can assume wrongly they are ‘doing okay’, or ‘they are just keeping to themselves’.

It is likely that people who have just experienced a disastrous event, don’t know what to think or feel. The experience of shock can prevent them from making important survival decisions. In fact, our brain does not know how to process all these new thoughts and emotions. It needs a new road map.

Others can assist us here. As there is no simple answer, we need to find a way of processing it. It helps to talk about it, again and again. This is not about finding solutions but discerning that new map. The last thing they want to hear it is, “you are resilient, you will get through this”. That is true, but now is not the time to say it. Don’t offer solutions or make statements that help you feel better about their grief and pain. Sit with them, listen to them and let them tell you what they need. They need to process it in their way. There is no one-size fits all solution to trauma.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is to offer practical help, rather than search for deeper meaning. Because people can’t concentrate, helping them with basic things like where to sleep, what do they need, and how are they going to feed their family. Helping someone fill in a form, or help them get money to buy things, can be more helpful than reminding them how awful it all is. People will need to get back to those to whom they belong, i.e. their local communities, and to try to establish a new routine, i.e. what is their ‘new normal’.

In addition, there will be others who experience vicarious trauma from seeing the images, hearing the stories, and seeing the pain etched on the faces of survivors. So, take care of yourself too. Another real situation now and into the future will be survivor guilt. Why did my house stay up when the neighbours either side lost everything?

Trauma is complex. Responses vary. The key is support and good process. In due course, a survivor will spell out their own road map for recovery. Nevertheless, they need some good travelling companions.

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