By Ashley Wilkins, Ph.D.
Over the last several decades, we have had no choice but to be more and more aware of the cycle of violence and trauma present in our world. Recently, we have watched with horror as the number of large-scale community traumas has increased. But what is trauma, actually? We tend to throw this word around casually to describe stressful events we don’t like. Yet, from a mental health perspective, trauma is something very specific. Within psychology and medicine, trauma means that there is threat to life—yours or someone else’s—that you experience or observe. And sadly, even with this more restrictive definition, it is undeniable that there is a lot of trauma happening in the world.
A word before I go on. Though I am a psychologist who specializes in individual treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I am in no way an expert on community responses or community based interventions after a trauma. I do have expertise in trauma. I am also a member of a community that has seen trauma. So, although what I have to say is neither exhaustive, nor the substitute for consulting directly with an expert, I find that the intersection of my personal life and my professional life leaves me with something to say.
So, what happens during and after trauma? During the situation, the fight-flight-freeze instinct kicks in, and the entire body reacts. On a personal level, the individual impact is marked. Afterwards, the body is physically on edge, waiting for the next threat to come, and daily rhythms like sleep and stress responses are disrupted. The mind becomes busy, trying to make sense of what happened. Now, it thinks and feels differently about the world, and memories of what happened come back at unusual times. It’s a temptation to draw away and metaphorically lick our wounds until the pain fades.
Now, step back for a moment and expand those reactions to a community level. Whole families and whole neighborhoods (including the public servants who respond to the situation) experience some or all of the above. Everyone is trying to figure out where to go next and how to cope, and it can get messy. But, coping, healing, and fully living once more are incredibly important.
So, I offer some practical advice, compiled from what I wish I could have said to so many of my clients, right after their traumatic event or situation happened:
Focus on immediate needs first. This is borrowed from Psychological First Aid, the current best practice in intervention right after a trauma. The most important thing after a trauma on an individual or community level is to establish safety. The foundation of later healing is making sure people have shelter, food, clothing, and a support system of trusted people.
Do NOT make people “debrief” or explicitly talk through the trauma on an individual or group level. If someone wants to talk, then let them say what they want to say, at the pace they want to say it. Everyone makes sense of events in their own time and own way.
Continue engaging with the life rhythms that are important. Avoidance (being busy, drinking, zoning out in front of the TV, withdrawal, or numbing our feelings) is one of the most toxic habits that can develop after trauma. It is understandably and naturally tempting to avoid life in general to avoid reminders of the trauma. Please don’t. Yes, it hurts. It is terrifying to see the world you thought was one way revealed to be much more chaotic, and unpredictable, and outside your control than you thought. It aches to look around you and only see losses: people, rhythms, structures, and treasured objects. Rather than complete avoidance, try to strike the balance between decreasing the pace for yourself/your family/your community in order to give yourself space, and still continuing with parts of life that give you meaning, joy and pleasure.
Make space to grieve, both alone and with your community. Whether the trauma is from a natural disaster or a human hand, trauma involves loss. Create space, time, and rituals to grieve and mourn as an individual and as a community. Art, music, spirituality, religious traditions, prayer, meditation, reflection, writing: all of these are ways that grief can be expressed. And if you don’t feel like you know how to grieve well… try anyway. Grieving loss is a core part of our human experience and fundamental for moving through trauma. Holding the pain in only lets the emotions fester and prolongs the suffering.
Hold on to hope. As a country, we just celebrated Thanksgiving. This year, a rather unusual source suggested that instead of gratitude, I focus on what makes me hopeful for the future. But, let me clarify that hopefulness is not optimism or forced happiness. Hope takes courage, because it asks us to believe that there is good yet to come. So instead of isolating, find times to draw together with others and find a source of hope—your own, or that of your community—to cling to.
I mentioned above that coping, living, and healing are
important. We do those things in a tension between the individual and the
social, between alone and in community. So, in the face of what can seem like
never-ending natural disasters, national crises, and local tragedies, I
encourage you to use what you need from the list above to cope, live, and heal.
It doesn’t include everything, but it is a good place to start. And in this
holiday season, in spite of it all, I hope for you peace and joy.
 Website: http://www.nctsn.org/content/psychological-first-aid