The Long Half-Life of Trauma
Here’s a question: How many times in the last week have you thought about the disaster in Japan? What about the week when it happened?
My guess is that there’s been a recent tapering off in your mind. You’re moving on to other things, like the royal wedding, or the 2012 election campaign. When extreme trauma happens, we tend to be horrified and riveted for a brief period of time. Then, generally, unless it affects us personally, we move on. Unfortunately, we tend to expect the people who have experienced the trauma to move on with us.
Sometimes, people are able to do this. There are undoubtedly people in Japan right now who are coping relatively well as they try to piece together what’s left of their families, homes and livelihoods. Society at large tends to love these kinds of stories: ‘family, after having lost everything, maintains stiff-upper-lip in face of disaster.’ We reward people who appear ‘fine’ after something terrible happens to them. We gush over how we can’t believe how well they’re doing; we hold fundraisers for them, all because we think that it’s an enormous feat to maintain equilibrium when life has been turned upside down, or everything has been lost.
Ironically, we tend to have much less patience for people who react to trauma in a way that could be expected. If in six months, two months even, a person is still struggling, we wonder what’s wrong with them. Fear, anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, nightmares — all very common reactions to trauma — often are viewed as a weakness in the person, instead of as the measure of the event they have experienced. Our culture has the memory of a 24-hour news cycle. No matter how awful the events in Japan have been, they are very quickly approaching the ‘old news’ category.
Any textbook will tell you that there are a variety of factors that influence whether a person will develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a term used to describe reactions to trauma that last longer than average. We want people to ‘get over it,’ and yet a big factor affecting whether they will or not seems to be the support that they get. Were they believed? Validated? Was there someone to talk to? I used to work with survivors of sexual assault and abuse, and universally, having had good support after they told someone made a big difference in terms of the depth and severity of the emotional damage. (And if they told and got a bad reaction? They were that much less likely to try again with somebody else). Particularly with childhood cases, when kids weren’t believed or were blamed, the results tended to be much worse. We call that ‘Secondary Wounding.’
Secondary Wounding is the term used to describe what could loosely be called ‘insult to injury.’ It works like this: Your average person tends to function with a sense that there is relative safety and fairness in the world. We all bob along under the impression that ‘sure, bad things happen, but they’re unlikely to happen to me,’ or, ‘ok, bad things happen, but usually there’s a reason for it, and if you didn’t deserve the bad thing, you should (will) be compensated for it, because that’s what happens in a just world.’
When we experience trauma (rape, a war, an accident, a robbery, a natural disaster, etc.), we are thrown into the opposite of a just, safe world. Suddenly we live in a chaotic, dangerous place where anything can happen without reason or warning. After trauma we try to get stable: We look around us for signs that things can be OK again, that what happened was an isolated event. If we have good support, and our experience is validated (‘yes, this awful thing happened to you, no, you didn’t deserve it, and yes, we’re here to help you through this’), we have a much greater chance of recovering and being able to move on. If we don’t get that support, and our experience is not validated (‘I don’t want to hear about it; it didn’t happen the way you say it did; it’s not important or a big deal; it’s your fault for failing to predict or prevent it’) we experience secondary wounding and are at much greater risk of longer-term effects, like PTSD.
Secondary wounding happens a lot, especially when people are uncomfortable with the kind of trauma that has taken place (such as sexual abuse), or with the group that it has happened to (such as when people deny the Holocaust). Even with more common traumas, after a certain point we just want to ignore it. In a recent Los Angeles Times article on the anger experienced by some of Japan’s latest refugees, one woman spoke about the government’s handling of citizens displaced by the nuclear radiation with bewilderment and dismay: “‘We’ve gotten no help. We’ve gotten no information.’” (Demick, 2011) The sudden discovery that we can’t count on supports and structures that we’ve always taken for granted at a time when we really need things to be normal and safe just makes everything worse. Whether it’s the support of the government you need, or the support of your family, if it’s not there, you really feel it.
We’ve come a long way in the past century in terms of how we treat survivors of trauma, and have a long way to go still. Whether in the tiny world of an individual family, or the larger world of international politics, the treatment people receive affects how they will recover. Statements like ‘get over it’ and ‘you need to move on already’ probably reflect our own discomfort with what has happened more than anything else; thinking too much about our lack of control over the bad things that can happen to us tends to make us very uncomfortable, and survivors of trauma remind us of that.
If you have someone in your life who has experienced trauma, try to remember a few things. First, disbelief, being dismissive or in any way blaming them can make things a lot worse: It’s better to say nothing at all. If you do speak with them about it, be gentle, patient and kind (it’s hard to go wrong in any situation with this approach!). Don’t think about what you would want or how you would react. You can’t assume that you understand what this person is feeling, even if you’ve experienced trauma yourself. Offer support but be realistic about what you can provide. Even if you are a therapist, you can’t be one for someone you’re close to. Encourage them to get professional help, and above all acknowledge how serious their experience has been. We certainly can’t eliminate trauma from the world, but we can change how we react, and that will make a difference.
Demick, Barbara.(2011). Isolated and angry amid Fukishima nuclear crisis. Los Angeles Times.
Barclay, Eliza. (2011). In Wake of Nuclear Crisis, TEPCO’s Plans Questioned. National Public Radio. Found online
Gaskill, H. (2013). The Long Half-Life of Trauma. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 22, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-long-half-life-of-trauma/