By Tikvah Womack, LCPC
Pain is complicated. We are uncomfortable experiencing it ourselves, and we’re also uncomfortable watching someone else suffer, especially a loved one. It’s important to realize that although sometimes people don’t appear to be in pain, they may still be suffering.
Since trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, we can anticipate that someone who has gone through such a situation may experience “aftershocks” known as stress reactions. The signs and symptoms of a stress reaction can occur right after the event or be delayed by hours, days, weeks or even months and may be physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral. Some survivors suffer the lasting effects of trauma more significantly than others. This is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it affects nearly 8 million American adults each year, though the disorder can develop at any age including childhood. Symptoms include strong, unwanted memories of an event, flashbacks, bad dreams, emotional numbness, intense guilt or worry, angry outbursts, feeling “on edge,” jumpiness and attempts at avoiding thoughts and situations that are reminders of the trauma. These symptoms can often be drastic and unrelenting.
When a traumatic event occurs, those affected tend to experience a heighted sense of awareness of their surroundings. Because of this, it seems like anything and everything can be a reminder. A memory can be sparked by something as simple as the smell of fresh cut grass because that’s what was happening around the time of the initial trauma. This can make it difficult for the person who has experienced trauma to move forward. If a person is aware in the moment that they are experiencing these symptoms, there are ways to work on identifying triggers and changing the reaction.
If you have a friend or loved one who has suffered a trauma, check in to make sure they are taking care of themselves. Be an active, non-judgmental listener. Remind them you are available and that you care.
Thoughtful gestures like these can be life changing for someone who is struggling. Remember you never know what someone is battling, so being compassionate and supportive can go a long way. It can be difficult to empathize with someone who has experienced something horrific, so the most important thing to do is to let them have a space to process their feelings on their own if needed. Often, the person needs to find meaning and solace for themselves, but this takes time and lots of support.
Be on the lookout for persistent symptoms such as:
- displaying sudden changes in behavior or emotion
- acting emotionally unavailable
- avoiding certain conversations especially about themselves
- exhibiting irritability, fear, sadness, anger, or guilt
- having difficulty sleeping or concentrating
- experiencing intrusive memories or dreams about the event or an exaggerated startle response
- engaging in reckless and self-destructive behavior
Should you notice these or other “red flags,” don’t ignore them. Share your concerns with the person and do your best to encourage and support them in getting help from a professional.
It is important to understand that there is no timeline for recovering from trauma and that the impact may last a lifetime. Perhaps the most obvious example of trauma’s long-term consequences can be seen in Holocaust survivors. Though the Holocaust ended more than 70 years ago, many survivors are still deeply affected by the traumatic experiences they endured. Holocaust survivors show remarkable resilience in their day-to-day lives, but at times may show signs of post-traumatic stress reactions. A person can move from victim, to survivor, to thriver and back to victim again at any point due to just a simple reminder. Being aware, sensitive, and patient will go a long way in helping them through the process of healing.
Tikvah Womack, LCPC, is Clinical Supervisor of Clinical Support Services and a Clinical Therapist at Jewish Community Services.
Jewish Community Services (JCS) provides programs and services for people of all ages and backgrounds, helping them achieve their goals, enhance their wellbeing, and maximize their independence. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.