Understanding the experience of trauma

Understanding the experience of trauma

If you think you might need help, don’t wait -- survivors’ symptoms can grow worse the longer they wait to receive care.

Iris Valanti

Looking back on the recently completed year, no event of 2018 has made more of a lasting mark on this community than the tragic shooting of 11 friends and neighbors in late October.

In the months since, many opportunities for counseling and healing have been offered, including drop-in counseling, individual therapy and support groups, coordinated by Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS). One counselor, EMDR trauma therapy expert Dr. Jamie Marich, came from Ohio to help staff the drop-in counseling sessions at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, and led several trauma therapy workshops to help even those in the counseling business understand the deep effects of trauma on individuals and the community.

Marich and JFCS Counseling Services offers this advice to those who are struggling in the aftermath of the shooting and who have not yet received any counseling: Do it now.

Many people who experience horrific, traumatic events do not immediately feel ready to talk about what happened; this is a completely normal response. But trauma comes from the Greek word meaning wound, and much of what we know about how to heal physical wounds also informs our understanding of what the human brain needs in order to heal from emotional trauma.

Initial memorials at the Tree of Life synagogue building Photo by Maureen Kelly Busis

“With physical wounds and with emotional wounds, we know that the sooner medical care is administered, the lower the chances of long-term complications,” says Marich. “When we go through a traumatic experience, the area of the brain that puts us on alert and keeps us protected during the experience — the limbic brain — goes into a panic mode.

“For many survivors of trauma, this panic button of protection doesn’t reset. This can result in long-term complications including post-traumatic stress, adjustment disorders, depression, anxiety and a variety of other emotional difficulties. The likelihood of such problems increases significantly if treatment is not received within the first 1-3 months after the traumatic experience.”

In short, survivors’ symptoms can grow worse the longer they wait to receive care, and the impact of these symptoms may be felt strongly by those they love, continuing the cycle of harm.

The good news? Many approaches to healing from trauma do not require survivors to talk specifically about what happened during the event. There are a variety of techniques and strategies that can help to both cope more effectively with the new reality as well as to shift how traumatic memories are stored in the brain. When we learn to live less in “limbic activation,” the impact of what happened may just remain a bad memory as opposed to a hot, charged and volatile memory that controls our lives.

While it is certainly possible for people to heal old traumatic memories, we know that the earlier a person begins the healing process, the better the chances of long-term health and recovery. Human beings have many resilient characteristics that help us endure and get through horrible experiences one way or another. Helping professionals recognize that peoples’ internal strength has helped them get through the initial recovery from this horrible tragedy. And they can work with these same qualities to help transform the impact of the traumatic experience in as healthy a manner as possible.

To learn more about the idea of “trauma as wound,” visit the TEDx talk by Dr. Jamie Marich, as well as other trauma resources at traumamadesimple.com.

JFCS can answer any questions and refer people to an appropriately trained trauma treatment professional in the Pittsburgh area. Call them at 412-422-7200. PJC

Iris Valanti works for Jewish Family and Community Services.

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