Illness. Death. Job loss. Relationship breakdowns. Unfortunately, to be human is to experience heartache. Knowing this, however, does not blunt the searing pain when we are faced with trauma.
Whatever the source of the trauma, distressful events often leave an impact on our brains. Numerous studies have indicated that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is linked to greater activity in areas in the brain that process fear and decreased activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex (the region in your brain that regulates your personality and moderates social behaviour).
When we experience trauma, the emotional symptoms vary and veer between shock and denial to anger and irritability, as well as feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Physical symptoms such as fatigue, poor concentration, aches and pains, and even insomnia or nightmares may manifest. These symptoms typically last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, slowly fading over time. However, they may resurface when you encounter triggers such as the anniversary of the traumatic event or when you come across something that reminds you of what happened.
The Healing Process
When faced with a traumatic experience, one of the most important things to remember is, not to isolate yourself. Yes, your natural reaction is probably to retreat into yourself and hide. That’s because your sense of security has been shattered, leaving you feeling vulnerable in a dangerous world. However, experts advise against isolation.
Seeking support from trusted friends and family can help you stay engaged and feel accepted. If you’re finding it hard to reach out to someone, remember: you don’t have to talk about the traumatic event if you don’t want to. The important thing is to share your feelings with someone you can trust – be it a friend, family member, or even a professional counsellor.
Another important factor when trying to move on from trauma is to practise self-compassion. When grappling with difficult feelings, try to treat yourself like you would a friend – with kindness and empathy. Remind yourself there is no time limit for grief, and that grief isn’t a linear process. Some days, you may feel like you’ve completely moved on whereas on another day, you may feel worse than ever. Everybody grieves differently and there is no “right” way to grieve. The paradox is, by allowing yourself to feel these painful emotions (without judgement), you actually heal more quickly than if you try to numb or ignore your emotions.
When we’re feeling emotionally distressed, it can be all too easy to neglect our physical wellbeing. However, it’s crucial that you remember to keep yourself healthy. By taking care of your body, you are actually increasing your ability to cope with emotional trauma. Try to get a good night’s rest by going to sleep and getting up at the same time each day and avoiding substances such as alcohol and drugs, which may exacerbate your feelings of depression and anxiety.
If you can muster the energy to exercise—even if it’s just a short walk each day—do it. The physical activity and fresh air will help clear your mind. Alternatively, you can explore other relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation or mindfulness exercises. Complement your physical activities with a well-balanced diet. Avoid sugary and fried foods, which may contribute to mood swings, and increase your intake of foods that are rich in omega-3 (salmon, walnuts, soybeans), which are beneficial in keeping your moods on an even keel.
Moving on from trauma is often a slow and difficult process. There may be days where we feel like we’ll never make it out of the darkness, but you can take heart in the knowledge that many have walked this path, and many more will walk this path. You are never alone.
In her book A Manual for Heartache, writer Cathy Rentzenbrink—who lost her brother in a terrible accident—said, “I used to be frightened of loving people because I thought I wouldn’t survive losing them, but now I see that making friends with grief, accepting it as part of being human, will liberate me to love even more, and that the love is always worth it.”