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Trauma survivors develop patterns of behaviour to survive. These patterns do not go away by themselves if they have been burned into the soul by traumatic experiences.
Emotional numbing allows the person to put aside feelings and do what ever it takes to survive or help others survive. This is appropriate and effective at the time of trauma. Later such numbing may include a sense of not really being a person, feelings of not fitting in, that no one can understand, feeling, or being told that one has no emotions, and not being able to feel emotions in situations calling for intimacy, tenderness, sexuality or grief. Efforts to avoid thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma may include isolating, substance abuse (drugs, alcohol, food, cigarettes), and other compulsive behaviours (watching TV, exercising, workaholism, perfectionism, gambling, risk-taking, sexual adventures).
Hypervigilance kept the trauma survivor alive in dangerous situations. This includes constant scanning for danger, startle responses such as hitting the floor at loud noises or staying asleep, going from fine to enraged in seconds, and changes in the biochemistry of he brain which brings the survivor to full alert much faster than other people, especially in the face of a trigger that reminds the person of some aspect of the trauma.
Re-experiencing the trauma through obsessive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, sudden re-emergence of survival behaviours, and emotional overloads, rages, or deep depressions when exposed to something that reminds them of the trauma are important messages from the survivor’s self: respect what you have been through and get help. Unfortunately most trauma survivors believe that they didn’t have it as bad as someone else, so they shouldn’t be bothered that they had to become numb to survive and are still numb.
Many trauma survivors also experience feelings of guilt. Survivor guilt may cause an inability to enjoy life, self-destructive behaviours, and depression.
Finally many trauma survivors have a secondary traumatization based on experiences of outright rejection, disrespect, or thoughtlessly spoken words. The pain this caused is often covered up with anger.
Post traumatic reactions often become a cycle of despair, intrusive memory followed by efforts to numb it till it breaks out again, and again, and again.
Each of the normal reactions to traumatic experiences can also have a profound and painful effect on the family. Some families believe that these symptoms are their fault, which the trauma survivor may reinforce because it is easier for her or him to believe he goes into rages or gets numb because the house is messy or the kids are noisy more than because of something that happened to him or her last month, last year, or ten, twenty, forty years ago. Pain also results if family members do not understand that these reactions are normal and believe the trauma survivor “should be over it.”
Futhermore if these issues have caused family members time and again to put aside their own needs and concerns to try and help the trauma survivor, they may have developed patterns for coping that are ineffective, which they may be unable to see, including focusing their lives on fixing the survivor, efforts to control everything and everyone around them, people pleasing, fear of asking for what they need, not knowing who they are anymore, hopelessness, and despair. The family often cycles through rescuing, failure, resentment, and despair over and over again.
Many trauma survivors do not understand why their families should or even could have problems. After all they have never been traumatized. Some families have been traumatized in their own homes by the flashbacks, nightmares, or violent actions of their survivor. They have PTSD from those events. They may also have PTSD from prior life experiences.
Beyond that there is the pain family and friends feel when they see someone they love suffer. They want to help. They would do anything to take the pain away, but nothing they do today will change what happened to their survivor. Nothing hurts more than to see someone you love suffer and be unable to help.
Trauma effects us all. Survivors develop skills which keep then from participating fully in family life yet prefer to think the trauma didn’t affect them. Families develop painful patterns of denial. In this group, we believe it is okay to be bothered by trauma. We believe it is normal to be bothered by trauma. In the past people were blocked by ignorance of how trauma affects the survivors and their families, but today we have a choice. When we let go of denial and work on acceptance of these normal consequences of trauma, we become able to learn from our experiences and to change and grow in healthy ways that were not open to us before.