When a community experiences a devastating event, the topic of trauma is often discussed more publicly for a while following the event. For many, understanding the wide variety of ways people deal with tragedy is difficult. Some believe people should just get over it, move on, adapt. Others struggle with anxiety, sadness and shame for not being able to get over it, move on or adapt.
Bad things happen to everyone. Part of the human condition is death, disease, loss and change. What makes an event traumatic? Why do some people appear to cope so much better with the stress of a traumatic event than other people? How can two people respond so differently to the same situation? Developing a universal set of characteristics to define trauma is difficult at best, however, there are some key factors that help provide an understanding of how events can affect people so differently.
One of the most important factors in determining trauma is the individual’s perception of an event. The severity of trauma is determined by a person’s belief that the event is negative and there is a high likelihood of physical pain, injury or harm, NO MATTER WHAT THEY DO. This sense of helplessness is a primary element in an event being traumatic to an individual.
The belief that we are in control of our environment is a basic survival mechanism. It allows us to create the perception of our ability to prevent harm, allowing us to feel safe, relax and rejuvenate to continuing the task of survival. Predictability and control are closely related and when these are threatened or destroyed, the event is likely to be perceived as more traumatic by the victim (this is why often times a victim becomes preoccupied with control).
Another factor that creates more negative symptoms relating to trauma is the suddenness of the event. If an event “comes out of nowhere” it is much more likely to cause overwhelming fear than those events that happen gradually, occurring over time. In general, a more gradual occurrence of the event allows our brain to adapt to the change (e.g. a bombing versus terminal illness).
While the perception of the event is more important than the reality of risks in a situation, other factors also influence a person’s ability to respond and react to a traumatic event. Some of these include our: 1) Biology – how physically and emotionally healthy a person is before the event. 2) Developmental issues – older children understand norms and beliefs, they have language to help process. Securely attached children are generally less affected than children/adults who didn’t have a predictable environment or care giver, 3) Severity of trauma (amount of fear and loss), and 4) Social context. Is the event socially acceptable (incest vs. tornado), socio-economic status (fewer resources equals more stress), education levels and coping skills also play a role in how well someone will generally process a traumatic event.
My hope is that this helps clear up a little of the very muddy waters of what trauma is and more importantly why we don’t all respond exactly the same way when a traumatic event happens. Meaning, control and suddenness all effect the way a person deals with a traumatic event. Be kind to others whose perceptions are different than yours. The perception is not right or wrong, just different.
If you are someone who is struggling with depression, anxiety, nightmares or other symptoms following a traumatic event in your life, reach out for help. Talk to trusted friends or family. Counseling can often times help reduce the symptoms and allow a sense of normalcy return quicker. You can feel better!