RESPONDING TO TRAUMA
High School Students of Angik School, Paulatuk, NWT
Facilitated by: Terry Garchinski of Life Works Counselling and Training Services Inc.
© 28 January 2010 Terry (the bag man) Garchinski
At times, it is difficult to understand why there is such hurtful behavior in our family or in our community. At times, it is confusing to understand other people’s behavior or our own. “Why did she hurt me? Why did I hurt the people I love? Why did I hurt myself?” Underneath these hurtful behaviors, underneath these questions and underneath this confusion is often trauma.
Imagine a circle of people looking towards the centre at something that is covered up with a blanket. That something is “trauma.” How can we talk about it and describe it so it is no longer hidden; so it is revealed; so it is no longer a secret or “covered up”; so it is no longer a mystery but is exposed and understood?
What is trauma?
Trauma experiences are those incidents that “break us down” and “upset our balance.” Often they are sudden or unexpected; life threatening or life destroying. They are the events that may scar our bodies but definitely scar our hearts, minds and spirits. They are hurtful, painful and devastating. They are personal: they can overwhelm and attack who we are as persons. They cross over our external and internal boundaries which protect us and help us to feel safe in this world. Such incidents include sexual abuse, witnessing a completed suicide, being in a war, living with violent alcoholic parents or a violent partner, leaving parents at the age of five to go to a distant community to attend a residential school which is taught in another language and another cultural context, being submerged after breaking through the ice, having our children being abducted or murdered, being tortured, being involved in an snowmobile accident where somebody dies or is seriously hurt, or being neglected or abandoned as a child (believing “my parents did not want or love me.”)
Most people in Haiti have been traumatized by the recent earth quakes and the aftermath. With thousands of friends and family members dying in a matter of minutes and then more dying in the days that followed. People felt trapped, helpless and hopeless. Many of the children who survived the natural disaster became homeless orphans who had little food or clean water. Afterwards, it became a struggle and a fight each day to survive. A huge international relief effort has responded to the personal and national crisis.
How might a traumatic experience affect us?
Trauma hurts deeply. It can have long term negative consequences if we don’t deal with it in a healthy manner. Our greatest power lies in how we choose to respond to the trauma. Our greatest power lies in choosing to help ourselves to minimize the negative consequences. In fact, we have the power to transform a painful traumatic experience and use it as a catalyst to live our life more fully and deeply with awareness, confidence, purpose, meaning, compassion and love. A positive response begins with choosing to heal ourselves. A positive response is to choose to “put ourselves back together.”
Our human needs, beliefs and/or innate reactions can influence how we choose to respond when confronted with overwhelming traumatic events. These influencing factors may include the following:
- To feel safe and to protect and defend ourselves from the experience of the traumatic event and our painful internal reactions, we may consciously or unconsciously block off the traumatic event using short term defence mechanisms.
- Because it is so difficult to feel powerless and helpless in the face of the traumatic event, we may try to have some sense of “power and control” over the event by believing it was our fault, even when we had no responsibility for the occurrence of the incident. But, if we believe it was our fault that the trauma occurred, we might carry someone else’s shame, guilt or responsibility. We might judge and punish ourselves. Children are vulnerable to fall into this pattern of responding especially when their parents were responsible for causing the trauma. It is easier for a child to believe “I’m a bad boy” than to accept that “dad loves alcohol more than he loves me.”
- In general, human beings tend to “seek pleasure and avoid pain” and to take the path of “least resistance.” This is especially true in the face of overwhelming traumatic events. But the “short term pleasure” and the “short term path of least resistance” may set one up for long term pain and blocks.
- When threatened, humans and animals tend to “fight, freeze or flee.”
These human needs, beliefs and/or innate reactions may conflict with each other and with longer term healing strategies. As a result, our emotions, thoughts, beliefs and behaviors may be erratic, conflicted, confusing and/or illogical. We may feel like we are “going in circles” or “going crazy.” The traumatic event and our reactions to it may feel like we are in “our own world of pain and suffering” which no one else experiences or can understand. We may sense that there is something in us that makes us do “bad, wrong or stupid stuff.” What follows are some frequent reactions or short term defence mechanisms that we may experience following a traumatic event:
We might push down the pain; push down our feelings, thoughts and memories about the traumatic event. Initially, we may go into shock. Later, we may deny it, bury it, not talk about it, “tune out” or keep it a “secret” even from ourselves. If we continue to react this way over time, the trauma may “ruin our lives without us knowing why.”
- We may try to distract ourselves, forget, and avoid our pain by giving our power away to addictions and turn to alcohol, drugs, work, sex, the internet, food, gambling or any other substance, behavior or belief that alters our mood.
- By boxing the pain in and holding it in our bodies we may grow physically bigger and bigger. Without “letting go” of the pain, we may become obese. Or, we may “use up so much energy” trying to keep the pain buried and hidden that our bodies can’t maintain a healthy, balanced weight. We may be underweight and look “anorexic.”
- We may try to forget but our bodies remember. We may “forget” the event by pushing it out of our consciousness. We may forget our entire childhood. We may forget to grieve. We may forget that we are able to choose to help ourselves first and that nobody can fix us but ourselves because we are our own healers. We may forget to do every day things like to buy groceries or wash our bodies. We may forget our children and their needs. We may forget to “ask for help” so we are supported to take responsibility for “healing ourselves.”
- Constantly working to keep the pain and reactions “out-of-mind” and “out-of-heart”, we might “tire ourselves out,” feel exhausted, defeated, and depressed.
- We might have confused or distorted thinking with rationalizations, projections, stereotyping, psychotic episodes or exhibit poor reality testing. Over time our sense of mental or emotional balance could be so compromised that mental or emotional illness develops.
- We may feel “stressed out” even in our daily living and we may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
- We might feel angry all the time at the whole world. We may focus our anger at all authority figures or people or institutions that exercise some authority or power in our lives. We might feel stereotypical anger at “the cops,” at “all men”, at “guns or knives”, at “white people”, at “the school and the teachers”, at “the Catholic Church”, at the “smell of alcohol on someone’s breath.” Our anger maybe constantly trying to invite us to look at the “trauma triggers,” so we can heal from the trauma.
- We might disconnect with self, others, creation, or the Creator. We might set up internal or external walls to block off parts of ourselves from ourselves or block off the outside world from ourselves. We might stop communicating with others and live as if we are alone on a deserted island. We might “push people away” and stay in our houses, hide behind closed doors, isolate ourselves and not visit elders for tea or go out to community events. We may feel alone and lonely all the time, “as if I don’t belong here,” “as if we are different than everyone else,” “as if the whole world has turned its back on us.”
- We might shut down our feelings and thoughts. We may become depressed. We may lose hope, meaning and purpose in life. We might stop practicing our own spirituality: stop praying, stop believing in a higher power, stop going to church, or stop going on the land. We might stop doing activities that we used to love to do: playing sports, dancing, sewing or hanging out with friends.
- We might shut down sexually and have no sex drive or desire. We may believe sex to be “bad” or “dirty” and anyone who enjoys it or desires it to be a “slut, whore or player.” Or, we might act out promiscuously and have indiscriminate sex with multiple partners and expose ourselves to the possibility of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, uncommitted or superficial relationships or have sex with people we don’t know or love in “one night stands.” Or, we might distort our sexual desire and direct it toward infants, children, animals, objects, pornography, close relatives, or the same sex. Or, we might find pleasure in expressing our sexual feelings in angry, disrespectful, controlling or abusive ways. We might sexually abuse others.
- We may turn off our physical sense preceptors and be like a person who suffers from leprosy. We might feel no sensation of pain, of freezing, of burning, of pleasure, of pinching, of squeezing or of being hit. We may see our bodies being hurt or pleasured but have no tactile sensation of it. We may feel “numb.”
- We may leave our bodies and have “out-of-body” experiences. We might have the experience of watching our body “from the wall” or “from a distance” as it endures the trauma “as if” it were another person’s body.
- The fear and terror of death may continue long after the immediate threat has passed. Like a rabbit or a deer, we might always be on guard — anxious, hyper-vigilant. Thinking, believing, ready to run, as if something terrible is about to occur. Living “as if” a tornado is about to touch down even though it is a clear day or, “as if” a gun is pointed and is about to go off even though there are no guns around, or, “as if” something horrific and wicked is about to happen even though every physical indicator is about safety, quiet, peace and serenity. We might worry and expect the worst at any moment. We might be unable to find peace within and find it difficult to relax, enjoy the present moment or go to sleep.
- We may feel captive, powerless, and helpless “as if” we are in jail, “as if I am not the boss of my own life.” The feeling may be so strong that we can only relax and feel congruent with ourselves when we are actually “locked up” in jail, or in a relationship with a controlling, dominating person, or when we are acting out a full blown addiction and say, “See! I am not responsible. It is not in my control!”
- We might stop growing and act immaturely “as if” we are still children or adolescents.
- We might allow our guilt to hold us back and not to grow and succeed to our full potential because we weren’t hurt as bad as our friends or family; we were spared the trauma; they may have “protected us” so we don’t want to be “disloyal” and move away or better our situation in life. We feel guilty that we are powerless to help them if they don’t choose to heal but we can choose to “be there with them” and not heal or grow ourselves.
- We may focus on the needs and pain of others so we can avoid our own needs and pain. We may focus on the “splinter in our neighbour’s eye” to avoid “the log in our own eye.” We may create conflicts with others; gossip about others; blame, shame, fault, guilt, judge, punish or finger point at others.
- We might lie to ourselves and to others and not show our true self.
- We may act co-dependently so we feel needed and get our own needs met indirectly through other people. We may make a career out of avoiding our own pain and become “professional helpers” and work as support workers, counsellors, social workers, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, ministers, politicians or mothers.
- We might repeat the traumatic incident over and over again in our heads, hearts or actions to have some sense of control over it, to figure it out, or to try to “rewrite” the incident so it has a different outcome or so we play a “different” role in the incident (ie: So, we are the perpetrator, rather than the victim or the witness).
- We might turn the mental, emotional or spiritual pain on ourselves and make it physically tangible through self harm by cutting, burning, or scratching ourselves; by tattooing or piercing ourselves or by engaging in high risk behavior. We might become depressed. We might choose to kill the pain inside but end up killing ourselves by suicide.
- We may refuse to take responsibility for our behaviors and healing by “putting our pain on others” by faulting, blaming, shaming, punishing, finger pointing, controlling and judging them. We might do this especially to those closest to us, such as our spouses, parents, children and friends.
- We may believe ourselves to be unworthy of the goodness of life. We may sabotage anything that brings us joy, satisfaction or fulfillment. We may avoid healthy, stable relationships. We may start coming late or missing days of school or work. We may resent our children for being playful, curious and rambunctious. We may feel unlovable. We may struggle to love ourselves, love others or accept the love of others.
- We might make ourselves invisible by hiding, being inconspicuous so no one notices us, observing but not talking, not sharing our self, our ideas or gifts with others, not letting “our light shine” by showing our beauty to the world, not being the “centre of attention,” working “in the background” or “being shy.”
- We might be disorganized with our external world reflecting what is happening within. We might have a messy desk, house or bedroom. Stuffing things in the closet or the basement. Not sorting out or managing our finances. Not combing our hair, brushing our teeth, or washing our clothes or bodies. Missing appointments because we forget. Missing opportunities because we “couldn’t get our stuff together” to apply, to ask for help, to wake up, to make a decision or to make a telephone call.
- Even though we may have not experienced the trauma directly, if we are constantly exposed to the people who experienced the trauma, we may start to take on some of the above mentioned responses “as if the trauma was ours to carry.” We might start carrying it for other people: for our parents, for our spouses, for our friends or for our clients. This is called, “vicarious traumatisation.”
We may experience many of these reactions, protective responses or “short term” defence mechanisms or we may experience just one or two. As human beings who experienced trauma, we can expect to experience some of them for a few hours, days or weeks after the traumatic event. The problem comes when these responses continue past their usefulness. When this happens, these protective responses are no longer helpful and can cause us more problems and more pain. If we don’t respond to the trauma in a healthy way, we may be negatively impacted by the trauma and our negative reactions to the trauma for many years! We may even pass our pain on to our children and grandchildren. Like a sore that continues to become inflamed and infected, the trauma may become a regular “fixture” in our lives. No one can “remodel” our homes or “clean house” except ourselves. If we want our lives to change, we have to choose to heal ourselves.
How do we heal ourselves from trauma?
To be healthy and balanced, we need to replace these reactions, protective responses and short term defence mechanisms with longer term healing and growth strategies. Although we may or might experience different negative impacts of trauma, we can choose to deal with the trauma in a way that invites healing, balance, freedom and growth.
In order to heal from trauma, we need to acknowledge that the trauma has occurred and it has impacted us. In order to define and assess what has happened and how it has impacted us we need to describe the trauma and our reactions to it including our sense perceptions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs and reactions. Formal processes of doing this are called “Walking the Medicine Wheel” or “Critical Incident Stress Debriefing.” These formal processes open a pathway for our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits so we can release the pain when we are able and choose it. As human beings, we innately know our own healing process or journey.
The healing process is unique, personal and specific for each person because we are unique people involved in unique, personal and specific relationships. The timing, order and choices for healing are also unique. Even though our healing journey as human beings is relatively the same, our individual steps on that journey are our own and can be very different and the opposite of others. Just because something has worked especially well for one person’s healing does not mean that it will work as well or at all for another. We each are responsible for our own healing. We each are responsible to determine and for choosing what will move us forward in our healing journey and to act on it.
- We can choose to raise the trauma up: “reveal it,” “expose it and myself,” “confess it,” so we know what we are dealing with. “See it for what it is.” “Put it on the table to examine it.” Remember, name, and talk about the trauma and its impact on us. We can choose to “break the silence,” “no longer hold the secret,” decide “enough is enough” by speaking our truth. We can externalize the pain by honestly telling our story of the trauma and of our life by saying, “this is what happened to me…” We can get the inside stuff out and not hold it in any longer. We can use our own words and share it with another human being or we can write it out. We can declare it publicly in a workshop or at an AA meeting, in court or at a Truth and Reconciliation inquiry. We can take it to a “Higher Power” through prayer.
- We can choose to connect with ourselves, others and creation. We can discover what is important to us by looking inward in self reflection, breath work, or meditation and by relating to others and the world around us. We can focus on ourselves and explore our interests, passions and priorities. We can express ourselves creatively by sewing, carving, art work, tool making, or music. We can share our experiences, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with ourselves and with others.
- We can choose to go back on the land, renew our relationship with the Creator we know. We can pray in our own way.
- We can choose to be courageous and take responsibility of our own healing. Not taking responsibility for what is not ours. We can take responsibility for our own healing first and then reach out to support and invite healing in others.
- We can choose to take ownership and responsibility for the hurt we caused others by apologizing. We can choose to let go of the responsibility for the hurt that others caused us by forgiving.
- We can clarify and let go of unnecessary baggage by distinguishing between the person and the event, behavior and responses.
- We can focus our anger concretely, specifically and appropriately.
- We can set, maintain and respect our boundaries and respect the boundaries of others: taking care of our own stuff and letting go and inviting others to take care of theirs.
- We can know and believe that “we can do it” and that “we are able and capable.” The truth is that we are the only ones able and capable of healing ourselves. We don’t have to do it alone and we can be open to the help and support of others but we are the ones ultimately responsible for our own healing. We are the ones that have to choose it for ourselves.
- We can acknowledge our own mortality: “I am going to die.” This is true for every living thing, including our parents, our children, our friends, everyone we hold dear and ourselves. By acknowledging this truth, we can free ourselves to focus on life and how we choose to live our lives the best we can each day from now until the hour of our death. It may not be in our power to live for a thousand years but it is in our power how we choose to live today. It is in our power how we choose to live at this moment.
- We can choose freedom and peace. We can make decisions that free us from the burden and restrictions of unhealthy beliefs, patterns or institutions. We can choose to be ourselves and not put on masks or play a role that covers up who we truly are. We can choose to feel and act freely in expressing ourselves, our feelings, thoughts, beliefs and actions. We can choose to be sexually expressive. We can choose to be spiritually expressive. We can choose to laugh, to be happy, and to be at peace with ourselves.
- We can choose to let go of the burden of the traumatic incident by externalizing it. We can choose not to carry the intrusive or disturbing thoughts or negative reoccurring emotions. We can expose the source of our pain. We can open up to other ways of thinking, feeling, believing and acting. We can seek help and support through counselling, traditional wisdom, medicines, ceremonies, family members and support groups.
- After assessing the impact of the trauma in our lives, we can brainstorm the possible responses that will make a positive difference in our lives and in our healing. Then we can make a plan and map out what has been helpful in the past and what we think will be most helpful now. We can act on the responses that we believe will have the best outcome. After we take action we can evaluate to see if it was helpful. We can ask ourselves, what has changed? If it is the outcome we want we can keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, then we can make another choice and do it differently.
- We can allow our beauty to be seen. We can show ourselves and let our light shine. We can take care of our bodies, clothing and homes. We can eat well and balanced: avoiding too much sugar, fats and salts. We can eat local and fresh foods and minimize amount of processed foods we put into our bodies. We can maintain a healthy, regular exercise and sleep schedule. Beauty equals balance.
- We can welcome emotional discomfort, physical pain and mental uncertainty as triggers or messengers that we have more work to do to address the trauma. Our heart, mind, body and spirit are on our side and they are continuously directing us to seek balance, be aware and to act for our highest good.
- We can grieve the loss of our sense of safety, trust, confidence and belonging. We can grieve the loss of innocence, integrity, and wholeness. We can grieve the loss of family members, body parts, abilities or virginity. We can grieve the loss of culture, language, youth, traditional knowledge or self identity.
- We can seek refuge from our trauma within a sacred space: a church, a meditation, a support group or on the land.
Why do we talk about these difficult things?
We talk about these difficult things so we know we are not alone. We talk in order to free ourselves and others from the trauma and its negative impacts. We expose and reveal these things to develop the tools to effectively deal with trauma. We talk so we are more aware and more able to act to prevent traumatic events from occurring again. We talk so we break the cycle of traumatisation and re-traumatisation. By doing our work, we stop “passing it on to others.” This work helps to protect us. This work helps to deal with the negative impacts, the pain and hurt as rapidly as possible. This work helps us to accept those things that we cannot change. Hopefully, this work helps us to regain our power and makes a positive difference for the rest of our lives. Hopefully, this work helps us to be balanced, whole, happy and well. Hopefully, this work helps to have confidence, love and hope! The choice is left up to each one of us! Life Works!