Trauma is frequently defined as a “deeply distressing or disturbing experience.”
However, it is not the event that determines whether something is traumatic to someone, but the individual’s experience of the event and the meaning they make of it. A parent’s divorce to one child may feel like a bump in the road whereas to a sibling may feel like the end of his or her world.
Traumatizing events can take a serious emotional and physical toll on those involved, even if the event itself did not cause physical damage.
Nearly 35 million children have experienced one of more types of childhood trauma. Consequently we are seeing the rise of such specialties as trauma informed clinicians, trauma informed schools, trauma sensitive yoga and trauma informed parents.
In the wake of the Parkland shootings and the inspiring rise of teenagers we are witnessing since, I’m hoping that list will soon include, Trauma Informed Students. If they are to sustain their energy and commitment, these kids will need a solid understanding of the ways in which symptoms of post traumatic stress can and will manifest in the months and years to come.
If this finds its way to you Parkland and other teens from around the country, take note:
- Symptoms of trauma may pop up in unexpected or confusing ways. I remember meeting a young girl from Columbine High School. A year after the shooting at her school she began having severe headaches and dizziness. She was not at school the day of the shooting and her family never discussed the event. Terrified, she was sure she was either “going insane” or, had a brain tumor. She didn’t. She was suffering from PTSD. Here in Newtown, years after the shootings, we saw a number of area kids terrified of going away to college or even just to the movies. Be mindful that while any new ailment needs to be properly diagnosed, you are not “going crazy” and that headache that feels like a brain tumor or those hives that appear suddenly may very well be connected to post traumatic stress.
- Familiarize yourself with reliable and current sources on post-traumatic stress. The last ten years has seen a wealth of research in the field of trauma. Take some time – even just a little, to dive in. Find out about ACES (The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study). Many of the best sources of information are written for the lay person. Get to know Dr. Bruce Perry, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Dr. Peter Levine and resources such as The Child Mind Institute. Knowledge is power.
- Watch out for Vicarious Trauma. Vicarious trauma is the emotional residue of exposure that others have from working with or caring for people as they are hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured. If you are helping others through their pain, be mindful of the toll this can take on you. You can’t help someone else if you do not take time to treat yourself. Take a minute to watch Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s valuable TEDx talk. It’s worth it.
- You can experience symptoms of trauma even if you were not there. Trauma symptoms do not account for distance. Even if you were not at or near the scene of the shooting symptoms can still develop. This happened with 9/11 and no doubt is happening presently with teenagers across the country; particularly those with a history of trauma. (Next point.)
- Past feelings of trauma, those unrelated to the shooting, may be triggered and/or resurrected. Anyone who has a history of a traumatic experience: domestic or child abuse, a painful divorce, clinical anxiety, a serious accident or illness,etc., may find feelings related to these experiences resurfacing. After 9-11 many people who had long ago worked through difficult events from their childhood found themselves reliving painful feelings. The triggering event may be unrelated, but the feelings it unearths (anxiety, sadness, fear, loneliness) are the same.
- Symptoms may not develop for weeks, months or years after an event. Victim organizations continue to see new incidents of PTSD among 9/11 survivors. Be mindful going forward that you have experienced a trauma and while it does not have to rule your world, related symptoms can pop up over the course of your life at any time. Keep this in mind during major life events – both joyful and sad ones as well as during upsetting newsworthy events. Anyone who tells you should be “over it” is sadly uninformed and wrong.
- Trauma is stored in different parts of the brain/body than other memories. Scientists report that traumatic memories are different from ordinary memories in the way they are encoded on the brain. Trauma is stored in the part of the brain called the limbic system, which processes emotions and sensations, but not language or speech; consequently it often takes more than talk therapy to help release the trauma. Be open to alternative routes to healing and comfort. People have found tremendous relief from things such as, art therapy, equine therapy, massage therapy, yoga, EMDR and various somatic therapies. Pick up a copy of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
- Be kind to yourself. This can’t be understated. Need to take a day off from activism to go for a hike, DO IT. Rather meditate than call representatives but feel guilty, DO IT. You will be more a productive activist for it.
- If you need help, seek out a therapist schooled in trauma. However, remember the connection with the person is FAR more important than the degree he or she has on the wall. If they don’t feel like the right person to help you through this, they most probably aren’t.
- Be stoic but also embrace your vulnerability. This kind of activism takes tremendous stoicism, but it’s important to never lost sight of the strength that can be found from honoring your vulnerability. Feeling overwhelmed, sad, ineffective or scared is NOT a sign of weakness; it’s a sign that you are human and that you may need to stop and recharge. Watch Brene Brown’s Ted Talk on The Power of Vulnurability. Though, keep in mind there is a difference between allowing yourself to feel vulnerable and becoming so overwhelmed that you are unable to function. In other words, if trauma symptoms such as anxiety and/or depression are interfering with your ability to live, work, play and love, it’s time to seek medical attention.
- “The most traumatic aspect of all disasters is shattering of human connections.” You won’t always be on same page as friends and colleagues. Stress will take a toll and personalities will clash. Keep the bigger picture in mind. Recognize that you all were joined by same circumstances and that behind everyone’s actions and personalities is a personal story that led them there. Find the good in the people with whom you clash. If the goal is to make change, rise above the clashes and remain connected.The strength is in the numbers not the arguments.