No one should have to manage traumatic feelings on their own.
Each day we participate in life events and experience a range of feelings: joy, disappointment, acceptance, forgiveness, sadness, curiosity and grief. We learn how to handle these events and feelings through our parents, family members, teachers, mentors, coaches, employers and friends. We grow in our capacity to be “resilient” and recover from setbacks and losses. With guidance and support, most of us can successfully manage our feelings—learning how to adjust to change associated with such events, as well as the skills to meet social standards of conduct.
However, life also includes potential trauma. Our experience of an event may be defined as “traumatic,” but for another individual it is not. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trauma is an event, or series of events, that causes high levels of stress and is marked by a sense of horror, helplessness, serious injury or threat of serious injury, or death. Trauma overwhelms our capacity to cope. It affects the whole person—emotionally, physically, spiritually and intellectually.
Cause for Concern
When a traumatic event happens, a person may initially access the “fight, flight or freeze” survival response which is hard-wired in all of us. This triggers certain biochemical reactions, such as adrenaline production, in order to protect one’s self and is often observed in children as they face new situations.
Children, who lack the communication skills to tell others how they are feeling, often struggle and act out by having a tantrum, screaming, hitting or biting others. They may look dazed or unresponsive, or have difficulty with rational thought. Adults who know the child will use soothing techniques to let them know they are secure, safe and protected. Once they are calm, further communication can happen.
When these reassurances do not occur, however, the child may not develop the skills necessary to effectively manage future life events, and thus experience trauma, which limits their personal growth. As that person grows up, their resiliency skills may be challenged.
It is expected that adults have the skills to manage their feelings and will act in accordance with societal norms. It is expected that there will be a period when they are affected by the trauma—but sometimes the impact is such that the person and those around them grow in their concern.
Behavioral symptoms may include a change in appetite (leading to significant weight gain or loss); variation in sleep patterns (lack of or extended periods of sleep); mood changes (increased impatience, irritability or complacency); relationship changes (isolating one’s self or becoming overly involved with many); spiritual questioning or questioning of one’s former belief system; and/or use of substances or medications to manage any of the aforementioned issues. Further, these behavioral changes are sustained for a period of time, which creates deeper concern.
Scenario #1: A Traumatic Incident
Jakel was always described as a shy and thoughtful child. She liked helping others and was viewed as a good student, compliant and quietly involved in school activities. What was not known, however, was that she was being bullied by some of her peers—who repeatedly said that she better not tell anyone or she and her younger siblings would be hurt.
The situation continued for years until she graduated. When she obtained employment, her manager was bossy, abrasive and favored other employees—though sometimes she was humorous and kind to her. Jakel believed this was like any other job, so she did not seek another one. One day her coworkers invited her to go out after work. Jakel was surprised, but she thought they were getting to like her. They went to a local club, but eventually her coworkers began to make fun of her and left her there.
Though shocked by what happened, Jakel tried to put the event in the past. She continued to work because it was too soon to quit, but was suspicious of everything that happened to her. She lost 20 pounds in three months and was becoming less social and helpful. A close family member, who knew what had happened to her, became increasingly concerned and helped her talk with a counselor. As she described what had happened, Jakel realized how much she had changed to protect her feelings and not address how traumatic the incident at the club had been.
Scenario #2: An Impactful Divorce
Henry, a successful engineer, had worked his way up the ranks of education and in his company. As a young man, his family counted on him to help support them. He went to school in the day and worked nights, just like his father had done, and found little time for socializing or participating in school or family activities. His mother and father tended to be critical of anything he did, and lacked the skills to be emotionally supportive to him. Thus, Henry would look to a favorite teacher and his pastor to meet those needs.
As he entered his career, he met his loving wife, but after 10 years of marriage, they divorced. He thought his wife was too needy, and his wife thought he was too cold. The divorce was devastating to Henry, who thought he was a good provider and partner. He became more involved in his career—working long hours, overeating, experiencing lack of sleep and indigestion, and having a series of superficial relationships.
Eventually, he spoke with his pastor about his concerns, who suggested that he speak with a physician about his physical symptoms. To Henry’s surprise, his physician referred him to a therapist so he could understand why his divorce was so impactful.
Help and Understanding
If you or someone you care about has demonstrated changes such as these, seek help and talk with someone. If you need that person to be a “good listener,” express that this is not the time to share similar life experiences or how that person might deal with the situation. If you are the listener, let the person know that you wish to gain a greater understanding of how the trauma affected them and how they are coping, so they do not interpret your struggles as rejection or judgement. Remember the times when you felt supported, and use those skills again.
If the person continues to have difficulties, encourage them to speak with a professional counselor and/or their physician about the changes they have been experiencing. The impact of trauma is different for each person, and no one should have to manage traumatic feelings by themselves. iBi
Sharon Nagai-Phelps, MSW, LCSW, is counseling program director at FamilyCore.