Navigating a 'Normal' Trauma Response

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been getting slightly nervous about the number of people around me having to deal with potentially traumatic events. It feels like recently there has been a spate of people witnessing what can only be described as significantly horrific incidents. And then yesterday, one of my most treasured friends went into labour. She texted to let me know it was all happening and then I had to wait. And whilst waiting I managed to visualise nearly all of the potentially traumatising things that could happen. Giving a lecture on ‘Birth Trauma’ last year, just as all my friends began to have babies was probably not the best timing.

Why the panic and what’s the link? Well giving birth and witnessing something scary and horrific are both potentially ‘traumatic’ events. And because I’ve had the privilege of working closely with clients who have been on the receiving end of extended and complex traumatic experiences, any form of trauma can make me nervous.

But the reality is – it probably shouldn’t.

The word ‘trauma' is derived from the Greek term for ‘wound'. Very frightening or distressing events may result in a psychological wound or injury - a difficulty in coping or functioning normally following a particular event or experience.

Potentially traumatic events are powerful and upsetting incidents that intrude into daily life. According to the DSM-V (The Bible of Psychiatry Diagnoses) a traumatic event is composed of the following:

  • Any event that involves exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence that has the potential to be traumatic.
  • Experienced, witnessed, exposed or confronted with
  • Threat to physical or psychological integrity of self or others
  • Reaction involves intense fear, helplessness or horror

They are usually defined as experiences which are life threatening, or where there is a significant threat to one's physical or psychological wellbeing. By this definition, childbirth has the potential to be traumatic. So does witnessing something quite horrifying happen to someone else.

The same event may have little impact on one person but cause severe distress in another individual. The impact that an event has may be related to the person's mental and physical health, level of available support at the time of the event, and past experience and coping skills.

The experience of traumatic events is actually VERY common. Lifetime exposure rates in western countries has been estimated to be between 48 and 90%, with 51% of women and 61% of men estimated to experience a traumatic event during their lifetime.

Many people have strong emotional or physical reactions following experience of a traumatic event. These reactions are considered NORMAL responses to an ABNORMAL situation. For most people, these reactions quite naturally subside over a few days or weeks. For some, the symptoms may last longer and be more severe. This may be due to several factors such as the nature of the traumatic event, the level of available support, previous and current life stress, personality, and coping resources.

Below are some of the more common symptoms that can be experienced after experiencing a traumatic event:

As long as they are not too severe or last for too long, the symptoms described above are normal reactions to trauma. Although these symptoms can be distressing, they will settle quickly in most people. They are part of the natural healing process of adjusting to a very powerful event, making some sense out of what happened, and putting it into perspective. With understanding and support from family, friends and colleagues the stress symptoms usually resolve more rapidly.

And as it turns out, the majority of people who are exposed to trauma DO NOT develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or another mental illness, despite my unnecessary worrying about. For example, of the women exposed to a traumatic episode only 10.4% of those develop PTSD in their lifetime. For men it is 5%. Most people recover from any psychological dysfunction within 3 months of exposure to the traumatic event.

When we look at childbirth, research has found that 1 in 3 Australian women reported a stressful birthing event and 3 or more trauma symptoms 4-6 weeks postpartum. However, most of these symptoms subside and are managed well naturally, with only 2.8 – 5.6% of these women meeting the criteria for PTSD at 6 weeks postpartum as a result of traumatic childbirth.  

So – how can we ensure that if those around us experience trauma they don’t have to suffer any further than dealing with the initial trauma response? Like, with most things – love them and treat them compassionately.

And if we ourselves have experienced a traumatic event. It's also vital we treat ourselves with love and compassion. The following are some tips from the Australian Psychological Society as to how to deal with a traumatic event:

  • Recognise that you have been through a distressing experience and give yourself permission to experience some reaction to it. Don't be angry with yourself for being upset.
  • Remind yourself that you are not abnormal and that you can and are coping.
  • Avoid overuse of alcohol or other drugs to cope.
  • Avoid making any major decisions or big life changes.
  • Do not try to block out thoughts of what has happened. Gradually confronting what has happened will assist in coming to terms with the traumatic experience.
  • Don't ‘bottle up' your feelings - share your experiences with others when opportunities arise. This may feel uncomfortable at times, but talking to understanding people that you trust is helpful in dealing with trauma.
  • Try to maintain a normal routine. Keep busy and structure your day.
  • Make sure you do not unnecessarily avoid certain activities or places.
  • Allow yourself time to rest if you are feeling tired, and remember that regular exercise is important.
  • Let your friends and family know of your needs. Help them to help you by letting them know when you are tired, need time out, or need a chance to talk or just be with someone.
  • Make time to practise relaxation. You can use a formal technique such as progressive muscle relaxation, or just make time to absorb yourself in a relaxing activity such as gardening or listening to music. This will help your body and nervous system to settle and readjust.
  • If the trauma that you experience stirs up other memories or feelings from a past unrelated stressful occurrence, or even childhood experiences, try not to let the memories all blur together. Keep the memories separate and deal with them separately.
  • Express your feelings as they arise. Whether you discuss them with someone else or write them down in a diary, expressing feelings in some way often helps the healing process.

If the symptoms of responding to a traumatic event ever become too distressing or last longer than a few weeks, it is time to seek professional assistance. And like with all things mental health, the earlier you seek this help the better. You can ask your GP for a referral to Psychologist or chat firstly with any of the following –

Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
beyondblue: 1300 22 4636
MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78
Youth Support Services
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (24/7 crisis support)
headspace: 1800 650 890
    PS - My friend had a girl! And she is divine! And everyone seems happy and healthy and calm – including Aunty Sammy!

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