When Violence Surrounds Us: Understanding the Psychology of Trauma
Look around you. Pick up the paper and see the first headline which strikes you. What are the everyday news stories that stick with you? My guess is that it is most likely about all the aggression which surrounds us. Whether it is a murder or rape, a suicide or an accident, terrorism or a shootout – a tremendous amount of aggression surrounds us and perhaps creates a lot of anxiety within us. For many it creates a sense of insecurity and others question the viability of living in a society where aggression is rampant. Regardless of who you are, you probably feel lost.
Now imagine this is about us – the people who are reading about these incidents. For one second take a step back and try and imagine what it would be like for those who are in the midst of such a situation. It is a scary thought. It is rather hard to be able to take such a perspective as it makes us question a lot of the common assumptions we hold about the world, the people we live with and also about the future we envision for ourselves.
Let me help you understand some of what happens when someone goes through a traumatic experience. Be it a war or a trauma within a civil society, it is important for us to know what really happens.
What is Trauma?
First thing first, we need to understand what trauma is. In simple language trauma is the experience of unendurable affect or emotion in a situation which exceeds the individuals’ ability to cope with it.
Trauma can be related to any type of a situation and for different individuals different types of situations may be traumatic. No two people would respond to the same situation in the same fashion which is what makes it difficult to predict the impact a stressful situation would have upon the person. Ranging from a being spoken to in a nasty way to an act of violence or being a witness of a crime or an accident, anything can trigger a traumatic response from a person.
The Impact of Trauma
Trauma impacts an individual at multiple levels and in multiple ways. It has a hugely debilitating effect and the recognition of these diverse facets is integral towards developing an understanding of what trauma can do.
- Perhaps the most significant impact of a traumatic experience is on the question it raises about the beliefs we hold about the self, others and the world. Any trauma brings us to question what are called the “absolutisms” of life. What this refers is to is the inherent meaning and the value systems we attach to life and living it which make the world around us predictable and these very systems are brought into question when we are in the midst of a traumatic experience.
- A traumatic experience creates a sense of being alone especially when there is a feeling of not being understood or the rejection of one’s experience and feelings in
the situation. This can lead to wanting to be alone and perhaps even the development of shame around what has happened or how one has responded to the situation.
- It can enhance the perception of dangerousness of the world around us, taking away from the ability to develop trusting relationships or reliance on the surroundings. This can be seriously disabling for the individual as it does not allow for the creation of strong interpersonal relationships and increases the sense of threat.
- Trauma can impact the sense of continuity between the past, the present and the future. For most of us in our everyday life we stay largely in the present and look towards the future, taking away learnings from the past. However, for a traumatized individual there develops a feeling of being stuck in the past, with numerous moments of the traumatic episode being repetitively relived which prohibits an engagement with the present or a looking forward towards the future.
- The beliefs an individual holds about their own self – their abilities, qualities, and capacities – come to be questioned as well. Self-doubts can emerge which make it challenging to deal with current stressful situations. Moving forward in a confident manner becomes difficult and the belief in one’s efficacy and effectiveness in dealing with situations is continuously relooked at.
- Interpersonal relationships become a difficult area to navigate through as there is a lack of feeling of connectedness or attunement with the others who surround us.
- The person who has been traumatized can develop various aches and pains. They may experience low moods and may not enjoy participating in activities or their areas of interest. They may appear to be more anxious and worried or at times more lost in their own world.
As it evident, trauma may bring about a change in the entire personhood of the individual. He may barely resemble the person he was in the past. This makes it imperative that we try and do something to intervene in the situation.
What You Can Do to Mitigate a Traumatic Experience
There is no denying that this is perhaps the most challenging task that you as a confidante, a partner, a parent or a well-wisher of someone who has been through a traumatic experience would attempt to undertake. However, there are some things if kept in mind can facilitate the recovery process for the individual. There is no replacement of the role of professionals when it comes to dealing with trauma yet the support of friends, family and colleagues is integral to the recovery process.
- Be open and receptive. There would be numerous things that a person who has been through a traumatic experience would bring up which you may not be able to connect to. However, having an attitude of openness would enable the individual to not go into a shell.
- Do not shut down the individuals’ communication. It is very difficult for a person who has been through a traumatic experience to communicate and share anything with others around them. Be sure to not rush them to speak or interrupt them when they are saying something.
- Do not suggest that you know what it is like to be through a traumatic experience. A common mistake people make is to communicate that they know what it would be like. But remember no individual can truly know or understand what the experience of another is like as it is linked to who they are and how they viewed the situation and processed it and is mediated by their belief system and learnings from the past. You can be empathic but not know what it was really like.
- Encourage the individual to resume some activities from daily life but do not push too much. Remember the individual will require time to cope with what has happened and to integrate it into their life’s narrative. This is a rather difficult and time consuming process and you would need to be encouraging. Do not push as this may make the person feel you do not understand and that you are not accepting of them and what they have been through. This is a rather fine line and balancing this aspect can be challenging.
- Ensure help seeking for the resolution of the trauma. It is important that this person seek professional help to resolve what they have been through. Coping with this situation is difficult and it involves redefining numerous aspects of life which needs the support of a professional trained to help the person navigate through the process.
Traumatic experiences stretch the person who has been through the trauma and also those around them. Taking care of the individual and of your own self is critical in ensuring that one is able to move through the experience and reach a resolution.