Have you ever felt as if life is too unpredictable? That people can’t be trusted? That little things that use to be mundane and ordinary are now your greatest fear? Does your mind play horrific movie clips of events that have happened in your past? If so, you might be experiencing some of the effects of trauma.
Trauma is far too intertwined in the design of our world. With natural disasters, wars, violence, and sin in our domain, trauma is something that most people will face in the span of their lifetime, either directly or indirectly.
As a counselor, it is important to understand the psychological, emotional, and biological ramifications that trauma has on individuals’ lives. In order to gain a better understanding of how to recover from trauma, these things must be considered.
First, in order to make progress with trauma healing, we have to know exactly what we are dealing with. A traumatic event is defined as an intense or overwhelming stressful experience that threatens perceptions of safety and security both for oneself or another person (Jackson-Cherry& Erford, 2014).
Traumatic events can be human-caused accidents such as acts of terrorism as well as natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. Trauma can also be caused by abuse, assault, or witnessing a traumatic event. Yes, just by witnessing a stressful event, trauma can develop.
Most people who step into my office do not know how to label their experience as traumatic when they have not personally gone through the event themselves. This is so important to address upfront, because it validates someone’s internalized understanding of how they have been affected by that experience.
As relational beings, we take on the emotions of those around us. It is okay to be affected by those who are hurting or who have been hurt.However, trauma looks different for every individual person.
There are a variety of responses and effects trauma can have, depending on the event and person. One common response among trauma survivors is intense feelings of fear and helplessness during the event (American Psychiatric Association, 2013 as cited in Jackson-Cherry & Erford, 2014).
Depending on the person, there is a range of responses an individual may have. Different responses include healthy coping strategies that help survivors manage stress and process the event without disrupting healthy functioning, whereas others may respond in a more negative way.
Many individuals do not know how to respond or process a traumatic event. Many are left with emotional and mental disturbances that cause significant distress and impairment to normal functioning.
Due to this inability to process, it is common for trauma survivors to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) in response to a traumatic event.
Effects of a Traumatic Experience
Trauma survivors who develop illnesses such as PTSD or ASD due to a traumatic event are left with physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and/or spiritual effects that cause significant impairment and disrupt their quality of life.
Some of these effects include disturbances in healthy body regulation, sleep problems, increased anxiety, social withdrawal, increased use of substances, and difficulty concentrating.
According to the DSM-5, specific symptoms of individuals experiencing PTSD involve hypervigilance, exaggerated startled responses, sleep disturbances, flashbacks, avoidance, detachment, and dissociation. Any one of these symptoms alone can impact an individual’s life, both in interpersonal relationships as well as professional settings.
To provide a clear picture of what this looks like and how to recover from trauma, I want to explore a fictional case study.
Jane, a 20-year-old sophomore in college, has recently been encouraged to attend counseling at the concern of her parents.
Jane is unable to attend school due to her inability to drive. There is no physical disability, but more of an emotional hindrance that isn’t allowing her to drive. She has tried walking to school, but still avoids the roads, so she has eventually stopped trying to go altogether.
Last year, Jane was dropping off her 8-year-old sister at school on her way to class and got in a serious car accident. She was going through a light that had just turned yellow, and got t-boned on the back passenger door by a delivery truck. The truck ran right into her little sister’s side door.
Once the ambulance came, parents reported that they were both trapped inside of the car, but that her sister had taken on direct impact. Her sister was in critical condition for the first couple of days, and after a week of several attempts to stabilize her, she died in the hospital.
Remember, this is not a real story — but were there parts of it that felt real to you? Did you have a response to reading this? Did anything resonate with you? Consider those questions as we continue.
Since the accident, Jane’s family reports that she has socially withdrawn from her friends and social interests. She used to be involved in choir and was fairly social before this traumatic event. She doesn’t have much interest in anything anymore, and spends a lot of time in her room sleeping during the day.
Jane reports that she has difficulty concentrating so her grades have dropped significantly and her absences are threatening her chance of graduating. Her parents also report that they have woken up several times in the night to Jane screaming in her sleep.
Any time her parents have tried to talk about the event, Jane pretends she does not know what they are talking about. Jane’s parents received grief counseling shortly after the final funeral arrangements, but Jane refused.
In our first session, Jane was not only resistant to discuss the accident, but stated that she could not recall components of the event. Her parents are worried for her psychological well-being as well as how her current behavior will affect her future.
From what Jane has experienced, it sounds like she is experiencing unprocessed trauma, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and complicated grief. This event holds great weight in Jane’s daily life and ability to function effectively.
First, in order to best serve Jane, it is important to build a therapeutic alliance on empathetic understanding, unconditional positive regard, and congruence. She needs to feel safe and supported to process these traumatic events in a safe, nonjudgmental, and open environment.
It is my responsibility as a counselor to create a therapeutic container that fosters this trust. Also, it is important to remember that Jane is the expert of her life and in the driver’s seat of the therapeutic process.
I will not press her to disclose things she is not comfortable talking about. Through a collaborative effort, the goal is to help Jane process this past traumatic event, assist her in the grieving process, and reduce the PTSD symptoms to get her back to a place of healthy functioning.
With PTSD and grief, there is an extremely tangled emotional web that needs to be teased out one strand at a time. It is important during counseling to explore the guilt and shame Jane may be experiencing from being the driver and also being the one who survived the accident.
As her counselor, I would explore the implications guilt has played on her perception of herself and her ability to process the loss of her sister. It is important to address that grieving is an ongoing process, not a one-time feeling. My hope in offering this piece of insight would be to loosen the grip guilt has on her ability to move forward.
Additionally, it is important to address Jane’s beliefs about death and what comes after death. This could potentially have an impact on how Jane is feeling about the loss of her sister. I would also provide insight into the role that spirituality or religion has in Jane’s life.
For Jane, it is important to integrate principles that will help her find meaning in this loss. “Helping people focus on re-creating a meaningful existence is the most important function of the grieving process” (Jackson-Cherry & Erford, 2014, p. 313). Considering the spiritual influence of this loss will hopefully help Jane transcend suffering and adapt to life’s difficulties when they occur.
Spiritual Support for Trauma Healing
My goal is that through the therapeutic alliance, hurting individuals will be able to explore past trauma and unprocessed grief in a controlled environment that allows them to integrate emotional responses that lead to effective ways of functioning again.
Now this case study is a short synopsis of what the counseling process would look like. It isn’t as simple as writing out all the areas to explore and boom, there’s automatic healing. Recovering from trauma takes emotional and mental work. It isn’t an easy process to sit in the negative experiences and emotions that leave us feeling stuck, but God promises deliverance!
Isaiah 43:2 states:
“When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.”
When I read this Scripture, I not only hear the voice of comfort from God, but also an unwavering support that the Lord promises. No matter how hard the situation is, God is there. He understands. He promises healing out of it.
It might not seem like it’s possible, but I truly believe in the transformative properties that a relationship with God offers. Often times we try to rely on ourselves to get us out of tough times. We think to ourselves that if I can muster up enough strength or fill my schedule with distractions, then I won’t have time to focus on the challenges that I’m facing or feeling.
However, this way of thinking could not be further from the path of healing. It takes great vulnerability with yourself to acknowledge the pain and suffering that you’re experiencing.
Society is constantly pushing this idea that we have to have it all together, perfectly balancing a busy lifestyle, while managing stress appropriately, and not letting our past affect us. But is this a sustainable way to live? It can be exhausting to maintain a false facade.
Being vulnerable is the first step to trauma healing. I want to encourage you to lean into the vulnerability. If anything that I have shared or addressed has hit a cord or pulled a heart string, maybe it is time to listen to that voice and reach out for help.
I would love to sit down and offer a safe place for you to work through the hard events of your life that have left you feeling hopeless and afraid. Together we can take the fragmented pieces of the past and create a new beautiful picture.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic & statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
Jackson-Cherry, L. Erford, B. (2014). Crisis intervention and prevention (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education
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