What are the symptoms of trauma? How does one recover from it? EMCC Senior Psychotherapist Dawn Tan provides some answers and advice.
Trauma is not what happens to you…
To paraphrase Dr Gabo Mate, a renowned Hungarian Canadian physician who works on addiction and trauma, “trauma is not what happens to you but what happens inside you, as a result of what happened to you”.
It’s the “meaning-making” of the experience – the meaning that has come to be attached with the event that causes distress, overwhelming anxiety and other negative emotions associated with trauma.
Not every frightening or distressing event or experience becomes a traumatic event or experience…
Whether it does or not depends on one’s whole life experience and in many ways on one’s upbringing – their culture, beliefs and environment.
For instance, when Tom was 5 years old, his father died. But his mother was always there, making him feel safe and supported. His uncle was also a father-figure to him, so the event was less distressing and did not have a lasting negative impact on him.
On the other hand, when Pam’s father died when she was 11, she felt his absence keenly but was unable to talk to anyone about her feelings of sadness. Her mother was unable to be there for her as she had to work long hours to support the family. In this case, her father’s sudden death became a traumatic event for Pam and left her with feelings of insecurity throughout her adult life.
What are some symptoms of trauma?
The person could be experiencing cognitive effects such as having intrusive thoughts, nightmares, loss of memory and difficulty in concentration. They could also show signs of disorientation and display mood swings.
In terms of behaviour, you may notice them avoiding activities or places that trigger memories of the bad event, and even activities they used to enjoy doing. They could withdraw from people and isolate themselves from social settings.
Physically, they could experience aches and pain in the body, insomnia and extreme fatigue. Sometimes they appear to be on edge, easily startled and hyper vigilant.
Emotionally, they may experience overwhelming fear, guilt, shame, anger, anxiety and panic attacks. Or they could appear to be numb and detached from people.
How can I support someone suffering from the aftermath of a traumatic experience?
When someone has experienced trauma, they constantly see themselves as a problematic person. However, they yearn to be treated as normal and accepted as an individual.
Being kind, compassionate and empathetic to their situation will help ease their pain and make them feel safe. This will help them in their recovery.
Do not be judgmental of their behaviour. Understand that the person is an injured individual who is struggling to survive from day to day.
Is it possible to recover from a traumatic experience without therapy?
Not everyone who experiences trauma will require therapy. If you are coping well in daily life, there is no need to seek professional help.
Some people cope by sharing their traumatic experience and talking with trusted family members and friends with whom they feel safe. Others manage through painting, sports, journaling, meditation, yoga and so on. Through these activities, they find a way to learn to relax and feel safe in their body. It is important to take note of the things that have helped you to cope and continue to do what has been helpful to you.
Some people choose to cope by keeping things to themselves as they find it unsafe to share or get support. This is especially so in cases where they have found their caregiver to be dismissive of their needs. For them, reaching out is risky because they believe they are unworthy, and they see the world as unsafe. Some choose to avoid the distressing situation/ places to minimise being retraumatised.
However, these forms of avoidance and suppression may lead to other mental health issues in the longer term.
When should one consider seeking professional help to recover from trauma?
If you find your day-to day life has been affected, if you are constantly feeling overwhelmed and experiencing distressing sensations, and/ or showing some of the signs described above, it is time to consider getting help.
If you have been seeking support from family and friends but you do not feel any progress, it may be time to seek professional help. The sooner you get the help you need, the faster you are likely to recover.
But I’m afraid of having to relive the traumatic experience during therapy…
In trauma therapy, you are guided first to learn to feel safe. Only when you experience a sense of safety will we progress slowly to working on being comfortable with distressing emotions. You will also be guided to understand how your brain has been affected by the trauma and learn to change your thought patterns in order to recover and heal.
For more information about the counselling process, please visit https://emcc.org.sg/counselling/what-is-counselling/