Traumatic events profoundly shock and overwhelm us. We can be exposed to trauma through deliberate harm, by natural disaster or accident, or by witnessing harm to others. It could be a single, vivid event or a pattern of violence, like childhood or domestic abuse. It can happen in public, at work or at home, where we expect to feel safe.
Trauma leaves us feeling powerless and afraid. We might experience flash-backs and nightmares and want to retreat from the world. It’s very common to feel anger, guilt and mood swings, to become scattered and unproductive.
For some, these reactions pass as we come to terms with the event and re-establish our sense of safety and control. But some people experience a longer-term condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Between five and ten percent of Australians experience PTSD at some point in their lives.
Public knowledge of trauma is improving, and more people now seek help. But there are still myths that need correcting. Here are three.
There are many factors that influence how a traumatic event will affect someone, and not everyone exposed to a traumatic event will experience PTSD.
People who experience violence are more likely to develop PTSD than survivors of other types of trauma1. If you’re in the middle of a relationship breakdown, a life-threatening car accident is more likely to traumatise you. You’re more likely to recover quickly if the trauma occurs within a supportive environment.
It may be that some people have a natural resilience, or no prior exposure. They may have strong support networks or effective coping mechanisms. Their existence does not mean that people who experience PTSD are weak.
Judging someone’s ‘strength’ based on their response to trauma is not only baseless but also damaging. The focus needs to be on understanding the individual’s circumstances and providing an environment that supports recovery.
After a trauma, it can feel like you’ve entered a new, unsettling world of constant risk. It can feel like life has changed forever. Trauma rips apart our protective bubble, leaving us vulnerable and exposed. But over time the bubble can re-form: a little battered, with duct tape in places, but strong enough for us to move on with our lives.
In the short-term, we need to feel safe and connected with loved ones. Then we may need space and time to process this profoundly shocking and unexpected event, and to work through the consequences. During this time, we’re often distressed and distracted as our minds are busy working to integrate the trauma. We can also experience flashbacks and nightmares.
It can be useful to tap into professional supports that allow us to safely re-experience the event, to come to terms with it. Counselling can also help us to avoid forming harmful beliefs about ourselves and the world and to avoid over-reliance on coping strategies like drinking or avoidance.
It’s reasonable to assume that a traumatic event is a purely negative one. However, research into post-traumatic growth (PTG) has found that we have the capacity to integrate these experiences in a way that can lead to positive changes. Recovery can include new capacities for appreciation and resilience, stronger relationships, deeper spirituality and greater satisfaction with life2.
PTG flows from our desire to make sense of the world. For some, trauma evolves into a catalyst for feeling more grateful to be alive, fostering closer relationships, and making long-desired changes to our lives. Others, like Rosie Batty, use their loss as motivation to help others.
The key to PTG seems to in the way we interpret the event. Terry Waite, who survived four years of brutal treatment in solitary confinement, said:
‘Suffering is universal: you attempt to subvert it so that it does not have a destructive, negative effect. You turn it around so that it becomes a creative, positive force.’
This isn’t something that comes easily, but it’s a worthy goal.
Veterans and Veterans' Families Counselling Service 1800 011 046
Blue Knot Help Line for survivors of childhood abuse 1300 657 380
1800 Respect for survivors of sexual assault, domestic and family violence 1800 737 732
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
Lifeline 13 11 14
Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467
Call 000 for urgent medical attention or police attendance