World trauma

Posted 4/6/22

The world has certainly had its share of trauma in the past two-and-a-half years. There has been COVID, natural disasters and now we watch as Russia wages war with Ukraine, and we wonder if there …

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World trauma


The world has certainly had its share of trauma in the past two-and-a-half years. There has been COVID, natural disasters and now we watch as Russia wages war with Ukraine, and we wonder if there could be a nuclear war.

This has created serious trauma among huge numbers of people. Many people are grieving their losses. Some have purposefully disconnected from loved ones due to politics.

We are making the situation worse instead of better with the responses we are having to our collective trauma.

What is trauma, actually? I am saddened when I hear people call a bad manicure a traumatic event. Trauma is an extremely serious event that is rare, unexpected and typically involves situations of powerlessness to affect the outcome.

People are victims of trauma—a car accident; a flood, fire or hurricane; persistent long-term bullying; the battlefields of war; long-term or sudden illness; and physical or sexual assault. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it’s meant to help you assess what an actual trauma is.

Polyvagal theory explains that when we experience a genuine trauma, our reptilian brain is activated and we are placed in a situation where we have four options: fight, flight, fawn or freeze. Our bodies are awash in chemicals—adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. Our thinking brain and our ability to make language or formulate words become compromised. During trauma is no time to make big decisions, but you are primed to fight, flight, fawn or freeze.

When faced with trauma, we can run away or fight—except when we can’t. There are times when the perpetrator may be bigger or faster than us or have a weapon.

When we are unable to run or fight, we tend to fawn or freeze. Fawning means we ingratiate ourselves to our abuser, hoping they will be kinder to us. Don’t judge this choice. It can seem like the only option.

The other thing that can happen is we freeze. This occurs when we can’t get away. Remember those chemicals coursing through your veins during trauma? Those are hormones preparing us to fight or flee. When we can’t do either, those chemicals can overwhelm our ability to handle the levels we are experiencing. This can cause the freezing response or even fainting.

Dissociation also falls into this category. In dissociation, you seem to exit your body, watching the horrific things happening to you, but not experiencing the physical pain of it. The medical profession calls severe cases of dissociation dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder. I consider dissociation a superpower. If I, or someone I cared about, were in an ongoing trauma they couldn’t escape, I would hope they could develop the ability to dissociate. It is a compensatory behavior used to handle a horrific situation.

It’s important to recognize that even though all of us are experiencing some similar things around the globe, we are not having the same experiences. The quote, “We may be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat” applies here. No one can measure the impact of trauma on another person. It’s complicated. You may notice one person moving along with their life, while another person won’t leave their home. This has a lot to do with genetic predispositions, life history, coping skills and the level of resilience a person has. On the other hand, you may normalize your experiences because you know others who are experiencing similar things. While it’s true that there are many people managing extended, multiple traumas, that doesn’t make it normal.

It is important for people who are experiencing trauma effects to learn how to stay vigilant without getting tense. It’s impossible to have a trauma response in a relaxed body. The first thing is for you to recognize when you are being exposed to trauma and how you’re responding to it. Some symptoms include not sleeping or over-sleeping; not eating or over-eating; intrusive thoughts of worry that won’t go away; trouble concentrating; lashing out at others; constantly being on guard for danger; feeling guilt, shame or depression; feeling like there’s something wrong with you and that no one would understand; and jumpiness.

Try this

If you are experiencing several of these symptoms together and you are generally upset about world news, it is important to reduce your exposure. Instead of watching six hours of news each day, decide which one-hour show you want to see and limit yourself to 60 minutes.

Make a plan for what you will do if the worst happens and write it down. If you’d like to practice your response daily until you think it is fairly routine, do that, but then let it go. If you know what you will do if the worst happens, then stop worrying about it. Fill your brain with thoughts of the people, places and things that make you happy instead. Make the most of your time.

Learn how to be vigilant in a relaxed state. Practice mindfulness. Know that right now, in this very moment, you are 100 percent safe.

That doesn’t mean that in the next moment, you may no longer be safe but that for this very moment, you are 100 percent safe.

Take everything moment by moment while scanning for signs of danger. You want to be vigilant, but you don’t have to be vigilant in a muscularly tense body.

There are many ways to relax the body. You could practice yoga, meditation and mindfulness. You can learn progressive muscle relaxation. Practice deep breathing. Learn pelvic floor relaxation. Make yourself like a wet noodle during times of tension.

Spend your time, energy and attention on the things you have control over, not what you don’t. Focus on what you have, not what you’ve lost and what you can do, not what you can’t.

If you try these interventions and aren’t experiencing any relief of your symptoms, you should make an appointment to see a professional counselor. It will help to have someone to talk with who understands trauma.

trauma, fight, flight, fawn, freeze, dissociation, relaxation, trauma response


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