Our area has a had a recent bout of extreme weather conditions, as highlighted by Hurricane Sandy. As this blog was being written, this post was just going to be just about hurricane Sandy, but also a school shooting in Connecticut has just occurred, which has been one of the worst in history in terms of number of deaths. While one is a natural disaster, and the other man made, some simple guidelines of surviving trauma can be the same for both.
The storm’s devastation swept through a wide area, from the shoreline to the mountains hours away. Now that the news coverage has died down, the after effects linger on, and in fact are still going strong. From access to medical care (hospitals closed in New York City and other locales), to families devastated with various types of loss (death, homes destroyed, loss of jobs and more). The pressures of living “post storm” are with all of us, from schedules that need to caught up on due time off, economic issues felt by individuals, families and businesses, and let us not forget one of the most important factors, the change in how we view the safety of ourselves and those close to us after this destructive storm.
The news coverage of the school shooting will go on, and will be impacted yearly through memorials, and unfortunately we have a long line of incidents such as this in schools and other places, dating back to the 1970′s, so the control of this phenomena needs to lead to a national awakening, and should prick our national conscience. The fact that these shootings continue on such a regular basis speaks volumes about the low priority mental health care and firearms control has in this country, but that gets me up on a political soapbox, which is not the purpose of this blog.
Both with the school shooting and Sandy, the devastation occurred in places children thought were safe, home and school. Children, having witnessed life threatening trauma right in front of them, and must receive help that is age appropriate and that will reach them in the languages they understand best, creative expression and play. The adults are of course shaken as well, and are caught between trying to provide care for the children in their families and themselves.
How do we go on and manage? By finding and using the strength and resilience that all of us can possess. More and more, research is pointing to non-verbal therapies as the premiere way to treat trauma. Creative Arts Therapy, Mindfulness, Body Centered techniques, either alone or combined with verbal counseling, and other alternative therapies such as utilizing relaxation, meditation and yoga are providing alternate pathways to work through trauma. Dreams were called “the royal road to the unconscious” by Sigmund Freud, creative arts therapy is another “royal road” to expressing feelings and states which can be difficult, if not impossible for some, to put into words after trauma. Arriving at emotional safety and security after suffering a trauma is a step by step process. Memories are stored deep inside. As world renown trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk states “The body keeps score”. Our nervous system and the impact it receives after undergoing a trauma has many effects, from hyper alertness, explosive reactions to others, intrusive memories and more. So how do we cope with the after effects of having suffered any form of trauma? We deal with the issues at hand as they are now, not delve into the past. Some ways to cope include:
Feeling a sense of safety and safety in relationship with others. This is an important first step. and can be difficult to achieve, especially if a destructive act occurs in a place that, for children, for example, thought of as safe, like school or home. Another term for this is being “grounded”. This means returning as soon as possible to as normal a routine as possible, Granted, this is difficult, as many families are still displaced by the storm, living with friends or other family members. It will also be difficult in the shooting situation, as parents will have their own fears. But they must deal with these fears in their own way and not in front of their children. If your routine has been disrupted and cannot be returned to normal in the near future, it may mean developing new routines for yourself and your family, and keeping them consistent.
It also means keeping in mind that their children will be watching them, and modeling their behavior after theirs. It is important for the adults to “carry on” as soon as possible, yet acknowledging a child’s feelings and letting that child know you are there for them at any time to talk, cry, hug, vent or also enjoy an activity together to take them out of the trauma aftermath for even a short time. Assure children that you, as the adult in their lives, are there for them and that they are safe and secure in the present. Let whatever trauma occurred become an open pathway for you and your child to connect, and for you to reassure your child that you are there for them. Only answer the questions the child has, do not give more information until they are ready and ask for it. Be mindful that a child’s recovery from trauma will not be on your time clock as an adult, but will come as the child is ready, and maybe acted out in nonverbal means such as art or play. In fact, for adults as well, traditional “talk” therapy may have limitations in dealing with trauma, such as verbally recounting the event, although some trauma therapies advocate this, might not be the best road for all trauma survivors to take, especially if they have a pre-existing earlier trauma or are having the early warning signs of PTSD (see below). Let the child be close to you if he or she needs this, it is a natural outcome of facing an unnatural situation.
The adults need to take care of themselves, too- Parents and adults in general will also need outlets to vent or express emotions such as grief, and should find them with other adults in their community, being mindful of their impact on the children in their lives. For adults leading their lives trying to “put it all back together” literally as well as figuratively, it could mean joining a community of support. returning to normal routines (adapted to any new situations, of course), and not forgetting to take time out to take care of oneself.
For interacting with any survivor, child or adult – Always express yourselves to survivors in a calm manner, with a measured, calm voice, you will find that this is not only keeps them calm, but yourself as well.
Take note of your strengths – they still exist, even after what has happened. Take note and add reassurance to yourself of the skills you possess, and then, go onto the next step,,,
Feeling a sense of connectivity- Get involved. It is healthy to become involved in activities in your community aimed at healing, be careful at choosing how much you can take on and what you can handle. Utilize skills that you are already proficient in in these efforts. This will give you greater personal satisfaction, and offer help in ways that are unique to you and your skills.
Make meaning out of the event – Whether it is helping rebuild, as with hurricane damage, or memorializing those lost, as with the school shooting, or other means, finding and aiding in ta cause greater than yourself will not only help others, but aid in your own healing as well.
Expressing one’s spirituality, in whatever form that one personally chooses, and connecting with a faith community,in however you wish to express it, are also ways one can form connection. Also, connecting within one’s own community, supportive family members and friends, volunteering in the recovery process. Research has shown that the less isolated survivors are after a trauma, the more likely they are to recover and be “back on their feet” sooner, and less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
It is important to remember that the vast majority of survivors of any type of trauma will be able to go on. Their lives will be forever changed, but they will be able to continue on afterwards, after an initial period of recovery. If any issues come up such as reliving the event, difficulty in sleeping, avoiding past memories of the event, intrusive memories, inability to function in normal daily activities, or seemingly inexplicable emotional reactions that appear to come “out of the blue”, such as anger or intense sadness, these are signs there could mean a more complicated recovery, and possible post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that seeking help will be needed to deal with these after effects. There is no shame in being able to ask for the help you may need. You and those around you deserve it!
If you are looking for more information, one of the most comprehensive websites I have seen is the website of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, which you can find at http://www.samhsa.gov/trauma/. They also have a free, multilingual hotline to help with those exposed to all forms of trauma: 1-800-985-5990) and SMS (Text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746).