By Martin V. Cohen, Ph.D.
Whether you have been a crime victim, involved in an accident or natural disaster, or were the victim of childhood abuse, the resulting trauma is similar. Pervasive fear and feelings of helplessness are natural reactions to events you probably had little or no control over. “I was totally traumatized,” and “I thought I was going to die,” are among the most often used phrases used to describe such occurrences. Unfortunately, trauma and the stress that follows, is on the rise at the turn of the new millenium in America.
Fortunately, there are ways to overcome the “aftershocks” of traumatic incidents. A cluster of symptoms consisting of (1) Persistently REEXPERIENCING the event (e.g., flashbacks, nightmares, etc.), (2)AVOIDANCE (e.g., avoiding people, places or activities that trigger memories of what happened) and (3) HYPERAROUSAL (e.g., jumpiness, feeling on edge, irritability, etc.) can be treated effectively with the following steps toward healing this condition. In 22 years of practicing psychotherapy, specializing in treating trauma victims, I’ve seen them work.
1.-- Recognize that your symptoms are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. Although you may feel like you are out of control or “going crazy,” in reality, you are experiencing what are called post-traumatic stress symptoms.
2.-- Talk about your thoughts, feeling and reactions to the events with people you trust. Then, talk about it some more. Keep talking about it until you have no need to talk about it anymore.
3.--Do whatever it takes to create a feeling of safety and tranquility in your immediate environment. Do you need to sleep with a night light on for awhile? Can you develop a discipline of meditation or listening to soothing music?
4.-- As much and as quickly as possible, resume your normal activities and routines. Traumatic events can throw your life into a state of chaos. The sooner you resume these activities and routines, the more normal your life will feel. Structure can provide feelings of security as you etch your way back to stability.
5.-- You are in a recovery process. Give yourself the proper rest, nutrition and exercise. If you were recovering from the flu you would not forget these health tips. Do the same for yourself as you recover from traumatic stress.
6.-- Take an affirmative action on your behalf. For example, if you were a victim of crime, prosecuting the perpetrator may be an empowering experience. If this is not an option for you, write in your journal. Strike out at the perpetrator with words. Take some action on your behalf.
7.-- Become aware of your emotional triggers and learn to cope with them creatively. You may have a flashback to your trauma by engaging in a similar activity, going to a similar place, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or feeling something that reminds you of the original trauma. One way to cope with this is to recognize that you are experiencing an emotional trigger and engage in positive self-talk (e.g., “This is frightening but I am safe now.”)
8.--Try to find some deeper meaning in what happened to you. True, you were victimized but you can become a survivor. Survivors often find that changes in their outlook on life are possible, even preferable. What have you learned from your traumatic experience? Record these insights in a journal or voice them in a support group that is sympathetic to your situation.
9.-- Seek therapy. Psychotherapy, particularly with a certified EMDR practitioner who specializes in trauma, is often very effective in helping people overcome the aftermath of trauma. If you can’t stop thinking about what happened; if you are always feeling anxious and on guard; if you find yourself avoiding your normal routines or if you are experiencing some of the other symptoms of post-traumatic stress, you can probably benefit from professional help. The EMDR International Association can give you a referral to a certified EMDR practitioner in your area (www.emdria.org), telephone (512) 451-5200. If you were a crime victim, most states offer victims assistance to pay for psychotherapy. For more information call the National Organization for Victim Assistance at (202) 232-6682. In California, call the Victims of Crime Program at (800) -VICTIMS (842-8467).
10.-- Be patient with yourself. Healing takes time. Your recovery will have it’s ups and downs. Follow the guidelines in this article and know that you are in a recovery process that will take time.
Remember, you may have been victimized but you do not have to continue being a victim. In this unfortunate case you were rendered helpless but to continue in that status is very limiting. By following the steps outlined above, you will emerge as a survivor. Your traumatic experience can make you a stronger and wiser person. The potential is there for you to learn and grow in ways you may not have considered had the trauma never occurred.
© 2000 Martin V. Cohen, Ph.D.