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Healing from trauma: Strategies for coping and moving forward

“Healing from Trauma: Strategies for Coping and Moving Forward” is an enlightening feature article crafted by Dr. Evelyn Owusu Roberts, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and esteemed faculty member at the Department of Psychology, Regent University College of Science and Technology in Accra, Ghana.

This article was also presented as part of the Mind & Heart Webinar Series, an initiative by the Communications Unit at Regent University, in collaboration with the Department of Psychology. The feature delves into the multifaceted nature of trauma, outlining various types, symptoms, causes, and risk factors associated with traumatic experiences.

The feature emphasizes the importance of recognizing the impact of trauma on both mental and emotional health and explores a range of evidence-based coping mechanisms. The presentation is rich with expert advice and therapeutic techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and the role of support groups, all aimed at empowering readers and attendees of the webinar to embark on a path toward recovery and resilience.

Trauma: At birth

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event, such as an accident, rape, or a natural disaster. It is important to note that everyone responds differently to trauma. Two people might go through the same trauma and adopt two outlooks concerning how they respond to the trauma.

Whether it seems easier for some people to undergo traumatic experiences than others shouldn’t be a matter of shame. Neither should a person be downcast because others who went through a similar circumstance seem to be doing better than the said individual experiencing trauma symptoms. When we explore coping strategies for trauma, we will aim to look at how we can get healing from trauma.

Types of Traumas:

The presentation categorizes and explains different forms of trauma that individuals may experience. Trauma can vary widely in its causes and impacts, often categorized into physical, emotional, and psychological types.

Physical trauma relates to injuries sustained to the body, such as those from accidents or violence. Emotional trauma, on the other hand, involves significant distress caused by events that threaten one’s sense of security or well-being, leading to feelings such as fear, helplessness, or horror.

Psychological trauma includes responses to profound emotional pain that can disrupt a person’s ability to function normally, often resulting from events that are extraordinarily stressful or disturbing.

To start, trauma may be classified as “big trauma” or “little trauma.” For anyone experiencing trauma, having their traumatic experience labeled as “little” can be a bit invalidating.

However, these two classifications are a way to differentiate and determine how severe the traumatic response is and it also helps in determining the level of treatment an individual may need.

Big trauma refers to the response of being through very big life events such as war or a natural disaster. These are very major traumatic events. Little traumas encompass responses to incidents such as emotional abuse and bullying. Trauma may also be classified into various types. These include:

  1. Life transitions:

Trauma that one may go through when they lose a loved one.

  1. Vicarious trauma:

Experienced by those who care for those who have been through trauma, or those who tend to witness traumatic events repeatedly. For instance, mental healthcare workers or counselors, while doing the work of trauma and hearing difficult, traumatic experiences repeatedly can lead to the experience of vicarious trauma themselves.

  1. Complex trauma:

Tends to happen repeatedly. For instance, it may be experienced by an individual who has been repeatedly raped or gone through some kind of sexual abuse throughout their lifetime.

  1. Historical trauma:

A major example is African Americans and the history of slavery. Historical trauma can have long lasting effects on communities and can be passed down through generations within a said community or group that went through traumatic experiences.

  1. Inter-generational trauma:

This is a type of trauma that can be passed down the line within a specific family. This makes it even more important to deal with our own trauma, because when we don’t deal with our own trauma, we can pass it down the line. How we respond to trauma, cope with it, especially if it’s not healthy, can impact our family, our children, and children’s children.

  1. Collective trauma:

This is the type of trauma that a collection of people experiences at the same time. An example is the COVID-19 pandemic and how it was faced by the whole world. During that time, there was a lot of fear, and it was a scary experience for many. A lot of people did not respond to it well.

  1. Acute trauma:

Like types we have already talked about. It is used to describe a one-time traumatic experience that occurred that was impactful, eliciting a painful emotional response to it by the individual.

  1. Chronic trauma:

Can be long-lasting, the effects are very pervasive, and even years down the line, the trauma response can still be experienced.

  1. Complex trauma:

Simply, comprises a mixture of traumas.

When examining the types of traumas according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is considered one of the ‘Bibles’ of mental health conditions, we come across disorders that are classified as trauma and stressor-related disorders.

These are- Reactive attachment disorder; Disinhibited social engagement disorder; Post post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); Acute stress disorder and adjustment disorders.

It is important to note that one may experience symptoms of these types of traumas in a less severe form that doesn’t qualify to be diagnosed as a disorder. What this means is that, because symptoms can appear on a gradient scale, it doesn’t necessarily mean that when you experience some of the symptoms, you have a disorder. Reactive Attachment Disorder and Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder are usually seen during childhood.

Reactive:

Usually found in children who haven’t had one significant parental figure or caregiver and so haven’t been able to rely on one person. They often find it difficult to receive comfort when they are distressed or seek out comfort when they are distressed. They have difficulty connecting to other people, especially to who should be in a caregiver position.

Disinhibited:

Similarly, this arises out of that same situation, in which an individual didn’t grow up with a single caregiver and had to move from place to place, so wasn’t able to form that bond. Consequently, the way they relate to people is disinhibited and tends to be a little bit too “free” with adults.

PTSD/Acute Stress Disorder:

The difference is in the duration of the symptoms. If symptoms are experienced for up to a month, it may be classified as acute. Whereas, if the trauma symptoms are experienced for more than one month, it is PTSD.

Adjustment disorder:

Comprises an emotional and behavioral response to a stressful situation which could also be traumatic, such as the loss of a loved one, or sudden traumatic life changes and a person not coping very well with that.

PTSD:

Tends to be a little bit more prevalent. It occurs when an individual is exposed to trauma such as a car accident, rape, or any sort of abuse, and the individual re-experiences the event, while they are conscious or sleeping, it involves nightmares.

There have been stories of veterans or soldiers who have killed loved ones because they were experiencing PTSD, and in the moment, they were taken back to the traumatic experiences.

Features of trauma:

The feature provides an overview of the key characteristics and common responses associated with experiencing trauma. It details how trauma can manifest in various ways, including physical symptoms like fatigue and headaches, emotional responses such as fear and anger, and behavioral changes like withdrawal from social activities or increased irritability.

Avoidance and numbing:

An individual may decide to avoid anything that is related to the trauma that the said individual finds triggering. A trigger is anything, event, or situation that reminds you of the trauma you have experienced. People sometimes avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma that they have experienced.

Negative alterations of cognition and mood:

Here, the individual may feel depressed, anxious, stressed, and have feelings of guilt.

Hypervigilance and arousal:

This makes an individual always on alert. Such an individual may position themselves in a way that they can quickly exit a room in the event of danger. Here, one is hyper-alert for any sort of danger. When we are looking at the significance or level of distress that a person experiences, it is significant when a person cannot do what they need to do on a day-to-day basis.

Aggressive symptoms:

One thing that might not be as commonly known is the aggressive symptoms that may come out of a traumatic experience. It is a way to handle these different, confusing, and overwhelming emotions that evolve out of the trauma. Someone who has been through a traumatic experience may have an angry and mean demeanor in their relations with other people.

Causes and risk factors:

The “Causes and Risk Factors of Trauma” section explores the various events and conditions that can lead to traumatic experiences, as well as the factors that may increase an individual’s vulnerability to trauma. It identifies specific traumatic events such as natural disasters, accidents, violence, and abuse as primary causes. This part of the article aims to provide insight into how and why trauma occurs and who might be more susceptible to its effects.

Abuse:

If you have been in an abusive situation, you are likely to experience PTSD.

Neglect:

Especially during childhood, growing up and not having that attachment/parental/caregiver that you can connect with can lead to one developing PTSD or traumatic symptoms.

Loss:

This can be the loss of something physical, such as a limb or sight, which can bring about a traumatic emotional response.

Personality factors:

Research shows that those who are high in neuroticism tend to have more of a difficult time recovering from PTSD than the average person, which makes it more likely for such individuals to experience PTSD than other personalities.

Coping strategies:

The “Coping Strategies for Trauma” section outlines practical methods and approaches to manage and mitigate the effects of trauma. It emphasizes a variety of strategies tailored to individual needs, including psychological therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). The section also discusses the importance of supportive networks, such as family, friends, and support groups, in the healing process.

It is important to be aware of triggers or some of the things that can make you relive that traumatic experience. You must identify the things, events, and situations that cause you to re-experience a traumatic experience so that when you are about to enter a situation that could be triggering, you can prepare for it. Cognitive reframing is one way to address triggers.

There can be a lot of guilt that comes out of going through a traumatic event. There might be the belief that nothing good would ever happen to that person. However, re-examining some of the beliefs and thoughts about that traumatic event can be a way to heal and is part of the healing process and a coping strategy.

Stress relief mechanisms:

This entails things we do so we can de-stress or remove some of the load or burden from ourselves. Stress relief mechanisms also must be within one’s budget. Simple activities like going for a walk, reading a book, watching a movie (be mindful about choices because of possible triggers here), going for a swim, and talking to someone who can support you through the process can be helpful.

Meditation:

Some Christians have reservations about mindfulness and meditation practices. Some techniques can be practiced by Christians. For example, one mindfulness technique is listening to positive affirmations on audio and Bible-based declarations.

Conclusion:

The feature reiterates the profound impact that trauma can have on individuals’ lives, underscoring the importance of recognizing and addressing it with appropriate strategies. It emphasizes the variability of trauma responses and the necessity for personalized healing approaches. The conclusion calls for increased awareness and support systems to assist those in recovery, advocating for both community involvement and professional aid. Ultimately, it conveys a message of hope and resilience, encouraging those affected by trauma to seek help and affirming that recovery, though challenging, is achievable with the right resources and support. Awareness is key.

 

The writer is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Faculty Member, Department of Psychology,

Regent University College of Science and Technology, Accra, Ghana

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