Coping with Tragedy: What are Trauma, PTSD and how to help yourself or someone you care about move through it

Over and over, I ask my clients in high school or headed off to college and adulthood about their biggest anxieties and fears. I still can barely wrap my brain around how often “school shootings” is stated. We are in a different era than when I went to school. School violence, tragedy, and suicide is on the rise and students want to know how to protect themselves and their friends; parents want to know how to protect their students. People want tools to be able to survive hearing about it, witnessing it, and even fearing it. These tools are out there. It is possible to heal. Tragedy does impact you and it may change how you view the world but it is possible to overcome tragedy and even to become more resilient and stronger through it.

This blog has 2 parts:

1. A deep dive into understanding trauma, PTSD and what happens in a person’s brain and body when tragedy occurs.

2. Tangible skills for students to help themselves and parents and peers to help their college students.

What happens when we experience a tragedy?

(whether it’s an assault, a shooting, a suicide or any other tragic accident)

The words that come up are shock, trauma, and PTSD. Let’s define these.

Shock is the initial response to a tragedy. It’s when the brain sort of shuts down and the body speeds up in order to survive what’s happening.

Trauma is any disturbing or threatening experience that you witness or happens to you.

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is something that can happen to people after trauma. Some symptoms include (not necessarily all):

  • trouble sleeping or eating
  • unpredictable emotions
  • flashbacks/re-experiencing the trauma
  • uncontrollable thoughts
  • physical pain
  • trouble concentrating, feeling jumping, or easily irritated.
  • Avoiding people or places or activities once frequented.
  • Drinking or numbing out in excess.

PTSD is your body telling you that it needs you to deal with the trauma. We can look at this like a filing cabinet. Sometimes trauma gets filed away in the exact way it’s supposed to and sometimes it needs help. The trauma gets stuck in our bodies and brains and it doesn’t realize the threat is over. This causes PTSD.

Trauma Deep-Dive

When any person experiences a threat, they will either fight, run or freeze. Things happen in the body here that we cannot control. Our frontal lobe (our cognitive brain) actually SLOWS down. This means we cannot think as clearly. This is intentional. It’s so we don’t over think it when we need to act in the face of a threat. This is not like regular decisions. We don’t get to weigh this out in our heads and decide what to do. Our bodies do the thinking and they decide what response we will have. Our heart and blood pressure may get real fast or real slow depending on what response we are having. Sometimes we can’t run or fight even though we really want to. Sometimes we freeze. This is when trauma and PTSD are more likely to happen. Things get a little stuck. But there are things we can do to help ourselves and heal.

The “How-To” of Recovery & Healing

  • Basic self care. Be sure to get some water, nutrition and sleep. Recovering from shock (the: “I can’t believe this just happened” feeling) requires our basic needs being met.
  • Talk to someone. A friend, a family member, a counselor.
  • If you don’t feel ready to talk, write down what happened and your feelings.
  • Feel your feelings.
  • Get back into your routine. Trauma is exhausting and it’s okay to let yourself rest but some routine will help you feel more like yourself.
  • It can be tempting to isolate but trying to have some regular ‘hang out time’ will help too.
  • Sometimes time just has to be pass for healing to happen.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk to professional…they are trained with how to respond to your symptoms and struggles and sometimes it can be easier to have them help you through it. They may see a way out that’s hard for you to see. (what’s the saying? …can’t see the picture if you’re hanging in the frame).

PTSD and Thoughts

Often, people who are struggling with PTSD symptoms are also having thoughts and beliefs that we need to tend to. These are the kinds of things I hear:

“I should have done something.”

“If we just wouldn’t have gone there.”

“I chose to be there, so I deserve what happened.”

“It should have been me.”

“It’s my fault.”

“How can I just go on being ok now?”

“I deserve to have a hard time.”

These thoughts are so hard because you can’t just talk someone out of them by saying… “No, no, it’s not your fault.” or “Nothing could have changed. It was just an accident.” Even though those things are probably true, a person has to figure out how to believe it themselves. Their body has to believe it. This can take time. And it can be so hard to have these thoughts especially if a part of the brain knows or wants them to not be true.

If you, or a loved one are having thoughts like these following a traumatic event, know they are normal.

Here’s what’s happening: These thoughts are your brain trying to control what it can. Your brain couldn’t control what happened but at least now it can be angry with you and blame you. The brain tells itself that if it is your fault then maybe it can control what happens next.

How to I help myself?  Look at the beliefs and ask yourself how you know it’s 100% true and see if you can find ways it may not be true. Ask yourself how you would feel if a friend felt that way about the same situation. Sometimes a counselor can be helpful to talk things out with because they are trained to do this. But no matter what, try to be gentle with yourself and where you are.

How do I help a friend or loved one? Knowing that someone you care about has experienced a tragedy and watching them struggle can be very hard. You may feel so helpless or hopeless yourself. You may start to experience physical symptoms of worry.

What to do:

  • It’s okay to ask. Ask them how they are feeling and let them know you are here to listen.
  • Validate and acknowledge. Let them know that their experience and feelings and thoughts are valid and acknowledge how tough and confusing it must be.
  • Don’t try to fix it. Sometimes we want to jump right to the solution because the pain is uncomfortable, but remember grief & loss take time and sometimes what people need more is for people to just be with them in the pain. (which is hard to do btw).
  • Offer to go with them to talk to a professional or set something up for them but don’t force it if they aren’t ready. Let them know it’s okay to take time and that you are just worried about them.

What not to do:

  • Don’t tell them to move on or get over it.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell them you are worried.
  • Don’t obsessively talk about if a person seems to be struggling. Sometimes a person acting normal is a part of the healing.
  • Sometimes it is not helpful for people to hear all about your own loss and tragedy. They are experiencing a lot and just need to be in their own stuff. But it may be helpful for you to talk to someone if your own tragedy is coming up.
  • Don’t tell them you understand completely (because you don’t, you don’t get their exact situation).
  • If someone has died, often people will say things like “Well, what would Grandpa what you do?” or “Your friend would want you to go on living and be happy.” I understand why people say these things and sometimes they just cause shame and make the person suffering feel bad about their own feelings and experience.

 

Feeling is Healing

Everyone who experiences trauma wants healing and for some, it may be harder than others. Some people may just need to grieve. Grieving the loss of a person or a sense of safety. Others may want a professional to help them hash out their thoughts and symptoms. There is no right or wrong.

Feel your feelings. So often, we want to skip this part, we want things to get back to normal (and it can) but we have to feel the feelings. No one gets out of that. And there is no right or wrong. It’s okay to feel sad, angry, numb, confused, guilty, happy, or relieved. We aren’t our feelings but we do have to show up for them and accept them. It’s okay to change them or distract ourselves when we are feeling overwhelmed by them but eventually and slowly we need to face the tough feelings.

“The best way out is always through”. –Robert Frost

Grief exercise

Write down what you have lost.* Tell the story of what you will miss about a specific person or a feeling of safety in a certain place or time. Maybe you are grieving that things aren’t going to be the way you thought. If you have feelings, that’s okay. Just have them, let yourself experience them as you write. Let yourself say anything you may want to say to this person, place or to the situation that changed things (if there was another person who assaulted you or a car accident, what would you say to it?) Just let it all out. There is no right or wrong here.

*Now here’s the truth, there’s some science to writing and writing is helpful but if you want to just talk this out, that’s fine too. Just turn on your phone and talk out the grief exercise with yourself or a friend.

 

I know this is a lot of information. Loss and tragedy can be a lot to hold and understand. If you have experienced a loss or tragedy, Bridge Box sends you ease and gentleness.  I hope this has been helpful. Please email Carey@mybridgebox.com for any questions or thoughts.

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Carey J. Cook, LPC

Carey J. Cook, LPC

Carey J Cook is a Licensed Professional therapist in Asheville, NC. She has a private practice and is the co-founder of Bridge Box which was inspired by her work with college students. In different capacities, Carey has provided education and therapy to college students and families for over a decade. Carey seeks to understand and support college students during this phase of life and provide tangible tools to students via Bridge Box.

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