Offered with full attribution to Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute:
Hurricanes, tornados, floods, mud slides, forest fires, mine collapses, oil spills, earthquakes, shootings, bombings—so many people in recent years have been caught up in the most horrific, traumatizing events. There is no shortage of tragedy in our world and trauma is one of the most debilitating and quite possibly long-lasting ailments that can affect a human being. The scars of emotional trauma, without proper care and attention, could last a lifetime, long after the physical scars have healed.
While body awareness techniques help people work through long-buried traumatic memories, what can we do when faced with the very real potential for trauma in the immediate wake of a catastrophe? Well, we can utilize those same techniques: we need emotional first aid as much as we need the paramedics and ER teams when disaster strikes or a tragedy unfolds.
What are the Physical Signs of Stress?
First, recognize the physical signs of stress developing. What should we be looking for, in ourselves and in others?
- heart beating faster
- difficulty breathing
- blood pressure going up
- stomach tightening, knot in the throat
- skin cold and racing thoughts
These immediate physical reactions will dissipate, if we don’t fight them.
In some people, old, unresolved traumas may get re-triggered. Their sense of safety and trust may have been shaken, so they can experience a temporary memory blank. They will need to be reminded of their name, their age, the date and the place.
It’s important to bear in mind that people will manifest physical reactions to stress, so don’t let these reactions scare you. It is good to recognize these signs for what they are and not to be frightened by them. The best “antidote” is to be aware of these and other impulses, and to be accepting that you, and others, are deeply upset and that it will pass.
After a while, some people might experience other symptoms, such as difficulty sleeping, craving food, especially salty or sweet food, or they might begin to engage in addictive behaviors such as excessive use of alcohol or drugs—the symptoms can be very diverse. They can come and go, or they can become entrenched. They can also occur in clusters.
Psychological Responses to Stress
People will have many different reactions to the tragedy. Some will be in shock, stunned and dissociated for a while. They may feel numb and cut off from the terror and pain.
Here are some other psychological reactions to note:
- Fear, sorrow, confusion, anger and helplessness.
- Anxiety, hyper-vigilance. The need to feel on guard or on alert, for example.
- Still others may become easily irritated.
All of these feelings are normal and will pass. People should engage in activities that will calm them. Being with family members and friends, for example, will be very soothing and calming.
It is important to take note of how the children are coping. They may become clingy and have nightmares. Alternatively, they may act out aggressively. This is normal. It might last a few days or more but it will pass. They need to be reassured and to feel protected.
How Trauma Takes Hold
Trauma is actually physiological, not psychological or emotional. So the best way to deal with trauma is to recognize this fact. Like animals in the wild, we have instinctive mechanisms that get triggered when we are threatened or in danger. They prepare us to fight, flee or feign immobility when faced with a “predator” so that we do not become the “prey.”
These reactions are physical and they must be “completed” after the danger has passed. When we allow the energy defenses that were built up to be discharged and leave our muscles and tissues, trauma can be avoided. It is the “uncompleted” response to threat and danger that results in trauma, because the biological response at the moment of the event becomes “locked in.”
We prevent trauma by helping our nervous system recuperate its balance. We need first to understand how the body discharges this energy when it is over-stimulated. Some examples of this are as follows:
- trembling, shaking or sweating
- warmth in our body
- stomach gurgling
- breathing deeply
- crying or laughing
These are all good signs. They mean that we are discharging some of the energy and our body is regaining its balance. The best thing to do at this point is simply observe. You want to allow what’s happening in the body to happen without interference or judgment. Just watch and understand that the human body has the innate ability to regain its balance if we just let it feel what it feels and give it time to do what it needs to do.
This is how we “resolve” trauma before it takes hold. We let the physical reactions to defense and threats play out and “complete” themselves. So, in a very real sense, “emotional first aid” is actually achieved through physical, body-awareness methods.
Exercises That Will Help
1. To prevent trauma from taking hold, it is very important to stay “grounded.” If you are feeling disoriented, confused, upset and in disbelief, you can do the following exercise:
- Sit on a chair.
- Feel your feet on the ground.
- Press on your thighs. Feel your sitz bones on the seat and your back supported by the chair.
- Look around you and pick six objects that have red or blue. This should allow you to feel in the present moment, more grounded, and in your body.
- Notice how your breath gets deeper and calmer.
- You may want to go outdoors and find a peaceful place to sit on the grass: feel how your bottom can be held and supported by the ground.
2. This exercise that allows you to feel your body as a “container” to hold your feelings:
- Gently pat the different parts of your body with your hand, with a loose wrist.
- Your body may feel more tingling, more alive, sharp; you may feel more connected to your feelings.
3. This exercise helps you or your loved ones to feel more balanced. The idea is to tense your muscles, each group at a time:
- Hold your shoulders with arms across your chest, tighten your grip on them and pat your arms up and down.
- Do the same with your legs: tighten them and hold them from the outside, patting through their length.
- Tighten your back, tighten your front, then gently release the tension.
Sports, aerobics and weight training are also helpful because they act as a channel for aggression or rage. If you believe in prayer or in some sort of greater power, pray for the rest of the souls of the dead, for the healing of the wounded, for consolation for the grieving. Pray for peace, for understanding and wisdom and for the forces of goodness to prevail. Do not lose faith in humanity.
When Tragedy Strikes
Finally, here are some suggestions for coping in the immediate aftermath of a major catastrophe or traumatic event affecting groups or communities at large:
- Don’t become isolated: get together with family and friends and support each other.
- Organize and meet in community groups in neighborhoods, YMCAs and religious centers.
- Try to get the information about your loved ones ASAP; watch the news for limited times and then turn it off for a while. You can put the TV on every two hours to get the information you need, but do not get hooked on traumatic images.
- It is crucial to refocus on your resources, anything that helps you feel calmer, stronger and more grounded, refocus on all your support systems: do things that keep your mind occupied, such as watching a movie, knitting, gardening, cooking, playing with children or pets, or spending time in nature.
And as time passes:
- Stay active and volunteer help in the hospitals or give blood. You can send money or help to staff help-lines for distressed people.
- Encourage people and yourself not to tell their stories in a repetitive way, which ultimately deepens the trauma. Instead, support and hear each other as you talk about the real catastrophe, with interruptions of the story, from beginning to end.
- Feel your feelings and allow your emotions to be expressed in a rational framework and in productive actions that you may choose to take. This will help you to process feelings without overwhelming yourself so that you do not get stuck in obsessive thinking.
Last but not least, know that we humans are extremely resilient and have been able to recuperate from the most horrendous tragedies. Furthermore, we have the ability to let ourselves be transformed by our traumas when we open ourselves to the possibility of healing and overcoming them.
To learn more about the nature of trauma and coping strategies, read this concise guide to more than 300 trauma-related topics, The A to Z of Trauma by Ronald M. Doctor, Ph.D. and Frank N. Shiromoto, Ph.D.