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Responses to Trauma

Is an event or moment from your past greatly impact your life right now?

Traumatic events can have long lasting, powerful influences of people that impact the quality of their experience, long after the event ended.

Consider two people exposed to the same moment – one develops a ‘PTSD’ type ongoing experience, whilst the other does not. What makes the two people respond so differently and can we learn from this to help those suffering from such moments in their past?

Trauma versus traumatic

Trauma is the Greek word for “wound“. In medical and psychological language, trauma has very specific definitions. For example, to be considered a ‘trauma’ in psychology, an event must specifically involve danger of death, injury, or sexual violation and be directly experienced or witnessed.

Going through very stressful, frightening or distressing events is a part of life and we can feel that they ‘wound’ us as they occur. Our brains cannot distinguish between physical and imagined dangers and risks, so whilst an event may not be a true ‘trauma’ according to the textbooks, an individual can easily experience an event as ‘traumatic’.

100% of people experience high stress, change and difficulties in their lives. 70% will experience at least one ‘textbook’ trauma experience (which is a massive number of people). Unless we have internal processes and skills to deal with the event, it can rapidly become traumatic, leading to long term personal impact.

Why it matters

10% of the population have clinically defined PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) – and a much greater percentage have ineffectively dealt with moments in their past that negatively impact them now and into their futures. What if we could teach people better skills and processes to deal with such moments as they occur, and even help them work on previously experienced events in different ways to generate massive change in how they experience their lives?

If two people face the same terrible moment and one comes out with a PTSD like response and the other doesn’t, then it is not the person that is the ‘issue’, but how they are interpreting, defining and coping with such moments. In essence, some people are stuck managing bad experiences for longer than they should because of ‘how’ they are going about it.

Responses to traumatic moments

Consider the range of possible responses to a stressful or traumatic event. A person can respond with ‘resilience’ and have no lasting consequence from the event, right through to developing ongoing negative experiences as those suffered by people with true PTSD. In between these two poles lies all the other possibilities of the human response – from coping to not coping, from empowerment to victim, from managing to collapse, from getting unstuck to remaining stuck.

The outcome for any one person to such an event is based upon the specific event and the person’s ability to work with that experience in a healthy way.

As an example, Kenny* and Sarah* are both on a flight that suffers clear air turbulence. People without their seatbelts on are thrown about the cabin, and some are injured. After the flight, Kenny keeps getting flashbacks about the flight and is scared and avoidant of ever flying again. Meanwhile Sarah considers it a ‘thing that happened’ and is back flying (this time leaving her seatbelt fastened) again.

What do they do differently with the experience and what’s can we learn to help others?

Knowledge and beliefs

What different people take away from an event can vary greatly depending on their knowledge and beliefs. What does the person know about what happened to them (the true statistics, risks, triggering event, etc). If they have little or limited knowledge, it allows a lot of room for them to unconsciously make things up. Often this leads to the development of a range of beliefs.

What a person learns for an event will determine how they respond to it in future.

In Kenny’s case, following the event of the plane, he now believes:

  • All planes hit turbulence
  • Planes cannot cope with turbulence
  • Turbulence means people will get hurt
  • Planes and flying is dangerous
  • I cannot cope if I am in a plane that hits turbulence.

Imagine how these new beliefs impact Kenny when he considers flying somewhere?

Skills and processes

Apart from the previous and new beliefs and knowledge that keep a person stuck, there are a number of cognitive skills that impact a person’s response to an event. For example:

Context

Can the person properly put the event in context? Kenny generalises that all planes are impacted, that he would never be able to cope, etc. Sarah, on the other hand, provides appropriate context and recognises it as a specific event in a specific time and place. She seeks to understand the context whereas Kenny does not.

Kenny may also start to generalise his fears to other modes of transport, being in public spaces, being in tunnels or on bridges. This is how Kenny ‘learns’ and then generalises the bad lessons from the event to try and protect himself in future – and generalising them way out of proportion. This is how one isolated event can lead to Kenny getting really stuck in many areas of his life

Control

If a person has a high need for control, then such a random circumstance that happens to them really triggers their sense of being out of control. This provides a skewed, victim type expectation when they consider flying again. Sarah recognised that she delegates control to the pilot, whilst Kenny simply believes he is out of control (and therefore bad things will happen).

There are many more processes in play that can lead to the debilitating impact this one event can have on his future experiences. If Kenny does not have the skill to correctly define, understand and learn from the triggering event, then he is going to be stuck with all of these bad outcomes for the foreseeable future.

The good news

The good news is that whilst such approaches to dealing with a stressful event are individual to Kenny, there are many common factors which can be leveraged to help him reclaim his sense of agency and overcome his anxiety and distress.

By updating Kenny’s knowledge, beliefs, skills and processes around the issue (and to other events in general), we can gently and powerfully transform Kenny’s way of dealing with this past event – and other events like it in the future – to get him unstuck.

Using strategic therapy and hypnosis are great tools for helping people like Kenny. I regularly see clients learn powerful new ways to process experiences and shift from ‘anxious victims’ to being in more powerful decision making roles in their own lives.

If you are ready to change your narrative, shift to more valuable skills and processes to get unstuck from such traumatic events in your past, contact me now to discuss how we can do this for you.

(*names changed to protect client confidentiality.)

1. Anushka Pai,,Alina M. Suris, and Carol S. North. Behav Sci (Basel). 2017 Mar; 7(1): 7.  Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the DSM-5: Controversy, Change, and Conceptual Considerations.Published online 2017 Feb 13. doi: 10.3390/bs7010007

2. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th edn. American Psychiatric Association, Washington DC 2013