Coping with Psychological Trauma

by Mahnaz Razavi | Jan 8, 2018

Psychological Trauma refers to an intensely overwhelming experience that challenges a person’s ability to cope. A traumatic experience can be deeply distressing and shakes the foundation of our sense of safety in the world, our belief system and our confidence. Before a traumatic experience, a person may hold the view that the world is a completely safe place. A traumatic experience can jeopardise that assumption and catapults the person into a new, “unsafe and shaky territory” where a sense of vulnerability and fear pervade.

People who experience overwhelming events in their life such as being involved in a road accident, exposure to a military conflict, being the victim of an assault, unexpected loss of a loved one, sexual trauma or childhood trauma, can sometimes experience longer-term psychological consequences.

The ability to regulate our emotional and physical responses in times of stress is innate and part of the “fight or flight” coping strategy with which we are all equipped. For example, in the event of a small fire breaking out and the sounding of a fire alarm, we tend to mobilise into action and vacate the place of fire immediately, until the danger is removed and safety is restored. Then we get back to our usual activities, feeling safe again. However, an alternative scenario is that maybe that fire spreads rapidly and the challenge of putting the fire out is beyond our immediate capacity, and we feel the threat of being harmed or even death. What happens if we are not able to battle through a threatening situation to escape it? In these situations, we can freeze, which is similar to a shock response.

In Post-Traumatic Stress, the natural process of “fight or flight”, as a regulating psychological response, may become stuck following the traumatic event. The mind and body behave as if the experience is happening again and again. There is a cycle of mind and body both wanting to escape the danger but feeling frightened, helpless, vulnerable and overwhelmed.

Whatever the cause and origin of a traumatic experience, people are left with several different types of reactions. These reactions are typical human responses, but, in the case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the processing of the traumatic information becomes stuck, and the body is not able to dissipate the ‘energy’ generated by the event.

Scientific research in the field of trauma by Professor Bessel Van der Kolk and others have found extensive evidence that being overloaded with extremely challenging experiences can leave “footprints” on our Central Nervous System and the Hippocampus area of the brain. This impact, in turn, can affect our memory system where we store both factual and emotional information and can ultimately interfere with the emotional processing of the traumatic event, impacting on concentration, mood, and sleep in the aftermath of an overwhelming event.

It is important to remember that experiencing psychological trauma should not be a life sentence and can be resolved with the application of both psychotherapy and use of appropriate medication that could help the hippocampus to resume its normal recovery state and our human functioning resume its normality.

The kind of reactions we can have to a traumatic event can include:

  1. Repeated re-experiencing the traumatic event cognitively, emotionally and physically as if the event is happening again. This may include having nightmares about the event, flashbacks, inability to stop thinking about the event, having vivid images of the event playing on your mind without having any ability to control it.
  2. Avoiding behaviour which is a psychological safety mechanism, albeit not a useful one in the long-term, which acts like a footbrake when you feel very revved- up. This may include not wanting to be reminded of the event or talk about it. The more severe the traumatic event, the more pervasive this behaviour can become.
  3. Feeling very anxious and revved-up, affecting the person physically, emotionally and behaviorally. This may include feeling panicky, angry with the people or perpetrators responsible for the event, feeling frightened, vigilant and watchful, wanting to have done more to protect your loved ones and yourself.
  4. Feeling disconnected, numb, spaced out, dissociated. This therapeutically is a useful coping strategy at a time when other resources are disconnected and nothing else is available to the survivor of trauma.

When to seek professional help

In the initial aftermath of a traumatic experience, the most important intervention is having a good support network. Talking about what happened to you can help enormously, so sharing the experience with your loved ones is a positive step in the right direction.

However If symptoms that are mentioned here did not subside and continued after a few weeks and in some cases months, it is important to seek professional help.

Treatments approaches, an integrative model

Research in the field of Trauma, PTSD and Complex PTSD, indicates that one type of therapy approach does not fit all. It is recommended to use an integrative model where a number of models are used.

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing

This is a bilateral eye movement which according to its founder Francine Shapiro resembles Rapid Eye Movement in Sleep, which can help the traumatised person process their experience. There is a huge body of scientific evidence to indicate its effectiveness.

Sensorimotor Approach

Inspired by clinicians including Pat Ogden and Peter Levine, where the aim would be on providing a “window of tolerance” according to Pat Ogden. This is because of the traumatised individual moving habitually between arousal state (panic attacks) and numb/ emotionally disconnected state, which is a sign of feeling overwhelmed. The person is helped to alter and regulate their unresolved emotional reactions to their traumatic experiences.

Trauma-Focused CBT

Evidence-based psycho-educational approach where the person is helped to cope with their emotions, thoughts and behaviour.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)

This is a useful tool which can help the person, having some sense of control over the flooding images of the traumatic event.

Attachment Theory

When a healthy childhood attachment is sabotaged, it can lead to the development of Complex Trauma.

This form of therapy aims at focussing on restoring the reparative element through establishing a therapeutic relationship.

Other helpful tools and therapies:

Increasingly specialists and scientists working in the field of trauma recognise that trauma can affect both mind and body. Therapies that address the neurological and physiological dimensions of trauma recovery include:

  • ‍Yoga
  • Mindfulness
  • Massage

Final thoughts

There are three factors that compound traumatic experiences.

1 – The nature of Trauma and its severity

2 – The context in which the event occurred and whether there was immediate support

3 – The existence of permanent, or semi-permanent, physical injuries following a trauma.

It is important to remember that we can all be vulnerable to a traumatic experience.

Mahnaz Razavi
Mahnaz Razavi

Mahnaz Razavi is a psychotherapist specialising in:

  • Complex Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Personality Disorders
  • Anxiety and Depression
  • Self-esteem and relationship issues
  • BereavementStress management

Mahnaz works in both English and Persian (Farsi).

Trauma can be effectively treated at home

If you would like to talk to us about any issue regarding psychological trauma, be it for yourself or a loved one, then please do not hesitate in contacting BREVIN and we will get back to you regarding how we can help through our one on one treatment programmes and expert assessments.

We have helped a multitude of clients overcome their trauma with expert therapy from Mahnaz, and our multi-disciplinary teams focused on the client’s particular issues and circumstances.

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