As a community, we are grieving the tragic losses from the recent events at Santa Fe High School. There are no words to adequately express the sadness that we feel for the victims and their families. Our hearts go out to those that are suffering as they begin the process of dealing with this tragedy.
To help those that are trying to recover from this traumatic event, we have listed some of the common reactions that occur as a result of trauma. We have also listed some steps that can be taken to minimize the risk of trauma developing into PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
What is trauma?
Trauma occurs when we experience an event that is so intense and extreme that it overwhelms our normal coping mechanisms. A person who experiences trauma may have a number of emotional reactions, including numbness, sadness, anger, anxiety, fear, and guilt. These feelings will typically fade if the effects of the trauma are managed effectively. However, if trauma is not adequately resolved, it can become PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
What is PTSD?
PTSD occurs when trauma gets “frozen in time” in a person’s brain. As a result, they may re-experience the trauma years later and feel like it “just happened yesterday”. Fortunately, there are a number of things that we can do to prevent trauma from becoming PTSD and there are effective treatments for PTSD should it occur.
Common reactions associated with trauma
- Anxiety – During a traumatic event, our bodies frequently experience a rapid surge of adrenaline. This surge in adrenaline is a survival mechanism that helps us run, fight, or hide. Once the traumatic event has passed, it may take some time for the body to process the adrenaline and return to more normal levels. This excess adrenaline frequently results in feelings of anxiety and restlessness. As a result, a person who has experienced trauma may continue to feel like they are in danger long after the traumatic event has ended. They may also experience a surge in anxiety as they begin to process the traumatic events.
- Numbness – A common reaction to trauma is emotional numbness or “going into shock.” This automatic emotional detachment is another survival skill that helps many people initially cope with the intensity of the traumatic events.
- Fear – People who experience trauma typically feel afraid for their lives. This fear doesn’t just disappear when the traumatic event has stopped. It may take some time for the fear to subside.
- Sadness and Grief – Trauma frequently brings loss. This loss might include: Loss of a friend or loved one, loss of physical abilities, loss of security and safety, or loss of something or someone that we value. As a result of this loss, many people experience waves of sadness after the trauma.
- Anger – Many people experience waves of anger after experiencing a traumatic event. This anger can at times be intense and may come as a person begins to process the trauma.
- Guilt – Some people experience survivor’s guilt after a traumatic event. They may ask themselves questions such as: “Why didn’t I do something different?” or “Why am I alive and they aren’t?” When someone asks these types of questions, it is important to remind them that they didn’t cause the traumatic event, they just did what they had to do to survive it.
- Disbelief – Many people who experience trauma say things such as: “I just can’t believe it” or “This has to be a nightmare and I’m going to wake up soon and this will all be gone.” Disbelief is part of the numbness that frequently occurs with trauma. It takes time for us to process the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of trauma.
- Sleeplessness – It is not unusual to have sleepless nights after experiencing trauma. As a person works through the trauma, their sleeping usually returns to normal.
- Disturbing Images or Thoughts – As a person begins to think through the traumatic event, they may begin to remember specific images, sounds, feelings, or thoughts that occurred. It is important to work through these images so that they do not become “stuck” in the brain.
- Thoughts of dying – Some people have thoughts of death or dying. These thoughts may reflect the underlying grief and loss or may be a side-effect of the trauma. If you have these thoughts or feelings, make sure to get professional help.
If the above feelings and reactions linger, please seek professional help. Trauma does not have to define your life. Remember, it is the fact that you survived that allows you to overcome the trauma and begin the healing process.
Strategies to help prevent Trauma from becoming PTSD
- Talk through the events – The more that we can put words to what we experienced the less power those events have over us. It is important to talk about the trauma even though it may initially bring up a lot of emotions. Talking about what happened is an important part of the healing process.
- Let yourself grieve – Grieving is the normal process that we go through whenever we experience loss. Grief often includes feelings of numbness, sadness, hurt, anger, and emptiness. Recognize that these are normal feelings and that it takes time for the grieving process to be completed. It is also helpful to remember that the more that we can put words to our feelings, the more successful we tend to be in healing.
- Work to change traumatic thoughts – When a person experiences trauma, they often have extreme thoughts that occur during the traumatic event. For example, if your life is being threatened, it is normal to think “I am going to die.” When you make it through the trauma, you may still have that thought imprinted in the brain. Without recognizing it, you may start telling yourself over and over, “I am going to die”. If this thought becomes “frozen” in the brain, it can lead to a constant state of fear, anxiety, and depression. To prevent this, it is helpful to identify the specific thoughts that occurred during the traumatic event and replace them with thoughts such as “I am going to make it” or “I am going to recover”.
- Learn to recognize triggers – People who experience trauma may develop “triggers” that cause them to relive some of the thoughts or feelings that occurred during the trauma. For example, a loud noise or a certain smell could remind you of a traumatic event. The more you can recognize these triggers, the more you can overcome them.
- Disconnect the triggers – We develop “triggers” because of the strong emotions that occur during a traumatic event. Working through the emotions allows you to disconnect the triggers and will help minimize the risk of PTSD developing.
- Seek therapy – Therapy can provide you with a safe place to deal with feelings that don’t always feel very safe. Find a therapist that is familiar with trauma so that you can get the help that you need to heal.
Additional Resources regarding trauma.
- National Center For PTSD – https://www.ptsd.va.gov/
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network – https://www.nctsn.org/
- Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences – http://cstsonline.org
- Texas Crime Victims Fund – https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/cvs/crime-victims-compensation
New Dimensions Can Help!
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the above symptoms or problems, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.
Our affiliate, MHThrive, provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more.