In 1991, I was 17. I was sleeping at home with my family in Tel Aviv on the night of January 17. At 1am a loud siren woke us up. We knew what it meant. We also knew what we must now do. I ran shaking and crying with my family to our “safe room” where we bolted the door and sealed it for protection against what we thought was a chemical attack.
Less than three minutes later, we felt and then heard huge blasts. Our house was shaking. Our dogs were silent. We thought surely, they were dead and that many of our neighbors must also have died. That was only the first night of a war when we all slept for weeks in our safe room. The missiles continued for several months.
Eventually the war ended and people returned to their routines. Most people seemed to be fine and moved on quickly from that scary time. For me it was harder and more complex, you can read more about that here.
Today I am a trauma therapist, working daily with survivors who have experienced debilitating trauma. Here is information that many survivors find useful:
1. While we all react in quite similar ways when we are in the immediate presence of danger, our reactions afterwards differ greatly from one person to the next.
Even people from the same family who experienced the same event often have very differing responses. Only you can define how this trauma affected you. Only you can define how it feels to be in your own body. It may take time for you to be able to realize how it feels, but no one else can know how it feels to be you.
2. Trauma can impact all our systems: physical (sleep, appetite, digestion), emotional (feeling of pain, anger, shame, guilt, survival guilt), cognitive (difficulty to concentrate, retain information), spiritual (meaning of life, God) and social (our relationships to family, friends and strangers).
3. Trauma lives on in the body and senses. In some ways, we are like a sponge for stress and trauma. The body remembers the sensations we experienced when the traumatic event took place.
At a neurological level, trauma creates what I sometimes call an emergency highway in the body. During trauma, sounds, sights, smells, thoughts, emotions, and movements all blend together in an intense experience, under the management of the reptilian brain, a primitive, survival oriented part of the brain. We’re gifted with this primitive survival system to cope with crisis. We run faster and fight harder when it’s activated. Your ancestors wouldn’t have survived without it, nor, perhaps you.
But once created, this highway never goes away. Some people have a hard time getting off it and preventing ourselves from constantly re-entering it. Every time we hear a loud noise, smell something or feel something that reminds us of what happened, we’re back on the emergency highway again. For minutes, hours, even days we feel the same things we experienced long ago in that traumatic experience.
4. Trauma responses are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. They are uncomfortable and often scary, but most people have them for a while after trauma. Over time, they get better for most people.
5. Professional help can make a difference for those struggling to get off the emergency highway. Find a therapist familiar with crisis response and psychological first aid.
6. Discovering previously unused personal resources is a key part of trauma integration. The moment that you experienced trauma, your survival system called upon special resources to help you survive and it continues to do so. Most survivors are barely conscious of the strengths that have enabled them to still be here today.
Some people discover new personal resources quickly and find new life and hope within weeks of major trauma. Others require months or more, of rest, regrouping and therapy.
Rushing into something new for the sake of diversion is no help. The discovery of strengths and resources emerging after trauma, what therapists call Post Traumatic Growth, comes in its own good time, sooner for some and later for others.
If you are in the latter group, ask yourself: What personal attributes have helped me to hold on to life even at its most challenging? What gives me energy to continue? The answer to these questions may enable you to eventually see resources you never recognized.