Saturday, 17 March 2012

Getting past " could have been me" when it wasn't

Shock can affect us in all sorts of strange and unexpected ways.  It's highly individual and we're unlikely to have a sense of what we might experience until we actually do.  Not only will it differ from person to person, we are likely to respond differently depending in the situation, and a whole variety of other circumstances.  It cannot be planned ahead of time but an awareness of the process can be helpful and reassuring when we find ourselves confronted by the all too often overwhelming reality that challenges even the most resilient of us.  Recovering from a traumatic incident takes time and tremendous attention to self care.  Healing is required, and this cannot be hurried. 

A trauma, by definition, is an incident that is so painful, emotionally or physically, that one tends to flinch away from it, not to let oneself be aware of it, to repress it.  It is the flinch and not the 'objective' description of the incident that makes it a trauma.  Hence, an event that is challenging and exciting for one individual may be traumatic for another.  The one for whom it is a mere challenge is able to 'stay with it' and master it; the one who experiences it as a trauma is not.

When something happens that is physically or emotionally painful, one has the option of either confronting it fully and feeling the pain, or trying in some way to block one's awareness of it.  In the first case, the action of experiencing (perceiving and understanding) what has occurred is allowed to go to completion and the incident becomes a past incident.  However, in the second case, the action of experiencing that incident is blocked.  That is, one represses the incident, and the incident (together with the intention not to experience it and any other intentions and activities present in the incident), continues to exist as ongoing unfinished business.  Such traumatic incidents may continue to exert negative effects.  This blocking activity is a self-protective impulse.  As such, it 'works' to a certain extent, but it can cause us to have attention and awareness tied up in incidents from the past.  This has a dulling effect on our ability to perceive, to respond intelligently in the present, and to enjoy our current environment.  Unexamined, unresolved past events tie up our energy and intention.

The reaction "It could have been me" is a healthy response to witnessing or learning about something that shocks us.  As humans, we are vulnerable to what we experience either directly, or indirectly.  A traumatic incident often serves as an uncomfortable reminder of our own fragility and ultimately, our mortality.  By hearing of the fate of fellow beings we are faced with the inescapable truth that our very existence is precarious and that nothing is certain.  Finding a way to process what has happened is an essential step in recovering sufficiently to be able to make some meaning out of what we have experienced, allowing ourselves to move forward. 

If you've witnessed or experienced a traumatic incident, you might have experienced many different feelings at the time and for some time afterward.  You may, at different times, have experienced or currently be aware of any or all of the following:
  • Shock
  • Trouble believing it really happened
  • Anger
  • Nervousness or worry
  • Fear or uneasiness
  • Guilt
In addition, you might keep going over events in your mind.  You might feel like you can't stop thinking about it.

For most people who have a traumatic experience overwhelming feelings about the event go away over time.  However, sometimes, those feelings don't go away or they become stronger, changing the way you think and act.  Strong feelings that stay with a person for a long time and start to get in the way of everyday life are signs of a condition called post-traumatic stress. 

If you have post-traumatic stress, you may experience any or all of the following:
  • An ongoing, general feeling of uneasiness
  • Problems driving or riding in vehicles
  • Not wanting to have medical tests or procedures done
  • Irritability, or excessive worry or anger
  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • A feeling that you're not connected to other events or people
  • Ongoing memories of the accident that you can't stop or control

What might help?
  • Talk to friends, relatives or a counsellor about the details of what happened and how you thought, felt and acted at the time and since then.
  • Stay active.  Exercise and take part in activities. 
  • Try to get back to your daily activities and routines.  It's important to try to get back to your usual activities, even if you're uncomfortable or scared at first.

Additional Resources

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