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.
7. Trauma integration takes time. You can often get relief from the worst symptoms rather quickly but there are no instant cures. If a therapist promises you a quick-healing, 100 percent cure or a full reversal of your traumatic experience, I suggest you find another one.
Trauma takes things away from us and some can’t be returned, ever. For some, the losses are physical, and tangible, such as people we loved or a body that once functioned perfectly. For others, the losses are emotional or intangible, such as a sense of uncomplicated wholeness, pristine memories of beloved times and places. Either way, coming to terms with irreversible loss is an essential part of trauma integration. Anyone who implies otherwise makes the journey ultimately harder for survivors.
8. Try moving more and talking less. This reminder may seem counterintuitive. The urge to tell and re-tell our story after trauma over and over is understandable. Years ago, therapists considered this helpful and encouraged extensive “debriefing”. But research has found that telling the story over and over is ineffective in bringing relief from symptoms, and sometimes it’s harmful. Every time we tell our story we relive it and the imprint on our brain and body becomes more permanent.
This does not mean that you’ve caused yourself harm by telling others your story. But you’re probably better off if you have a professional therapist guide you when in working through your story.
9. Social support is key for trauma integration and developing post traumatic growth. If you don’t have adequate support systems, call a support hotline, find a support group, reach out to a spiritual community, ask your parents to help you find a therapist.
10. Maintaining routines is one of the most effective things you can do after trauma.
- Keep physical activity in your life. The pull to withdraw and rest is powerful for many survivors and should be honored. But slow, gentle physical activities are restful and help to reset the system.
- Go for walks with someone that you feel safe with.
- Give and get as many hugs as you can from your loved ones (family members, friends, pets).
- Avoid violent or loud music, movies, and videogames.
- Eat as clean as possible, and drink plenty of fluids, especially those that bring restful associations (chamomile with honey, water with lemon or mint, etc.). Avoid sugar and stimulating foods and drinks as much as possible. You may feel you need stimulants, but with your nervous system already on high alert your goal should be to support it, not activate it.
- Relaxing scents like orange blossom essential oil, chamomile or lavender have a relaxing effect on some people.
11. When you are flooded with feelings, try one of the following exercises:
- Stress ball. Hold a small ball in the palm of one hand. Squeeze tight to the count of 5. Repeat with the other hand. Hold the ball in the fingertips of one hand. Squeeze tight to the count of 5. Repeat with the other hand. Hold the ball in the open palm of one hand. Let it roll around on your hand without falling. Gently throw the ball into the air and catch it with the same hand. Repeat with the other hand. Now gently throw the ball from one hand to another.
- 1-2-3 Reset Exercise: Jump up and down (as fast as you can) 10 times. Sit down (preferably leaning back on something) and breathe in (2-3-4). Hold (2-3-4-5) and breathe out. Make an s-s-s-s or hm-m-m-m sound on the outbreath and notice how the sound changes during the outbreath. Repeat the deep breathing part 5 more times.
12. Try to be kind to yourself. Remember — you are ALWAYS doing the best that you can at any given moment. Given a choice, you may have responded differently to events at the time of the trauma. But you couldn’t. Survival mechanisms took over and helped you do whatever it took to stay alive.
When we are kind to ourselves, our brain pathways “expand”. When we criticize ourselves they “tighten”. Since you did the best that you could, you are now also doing the best that you can. This means that if it is difficult and painful you can say: “It’s ok to feel pain, it’s ok to feel ____”; “I don’t like to feel ____, but it is ok to feel ____.” Saying this helps your nervous system relax. The more you do it, the more your ability to relax by choice expands.
Gertel-Kraybill, O. (2018 in print). Suzy and The Brain 1-2-3: What Happens in Suzy’s Brain During Trauma. Riverhouse ePress. PA, USA.