Looking back on the year 2020, the word trauma describes the experience of many communities and people across the country. The pandemic has taken a terrible toll, as has the resulting economic collapse and nationwide civil unrest. Philadelphians have experienced increased community violence and drug overdoses, and lost friends and family members to COVID-19.
But what defines trauma exactly? And what can you do if you find yourself experiencing distressing emotions or physical symptoms as a result of exposure to traumatic events? How can you cope? How can you build or rebuild your resilience?
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health condition that can result when a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. The events may be violent or they may be natural disasters, accidents, or severe illness. Even just the threat of experiencing any of these traumatic situations may trigger PTSD. Some people, especially those who are constantly exposed to violence in their communities, face repeated and ongoing trauma. Those who are traumatized, both children and adults, may experience disturbing and unwanted thoughts about the event, nightmares or flashbacks.
These distressing symptoms often lead sufferers to avoid similar situations or reminders of the event. They may cease to engage in activities they previously found satisfying or pleasurable; they may decrease important self-care behaviors, or they may attempt to numb their feelings with drugs or alcohol. As a result of experiencing trauma, many people develop negative beliefs about themselves, the world, other people, and the future, all of which perpetuate the feelings of distress.
For example, after witnessing a shooting in her neighborhood, a young woman comes to believe, “The world isn’t safe. I’ll always be in danger.” After watching his wife die from COVID-19, a man begins to believe, “I’m a failure [because I couldn’t save her]. I’ll never recover from this loss.” After experiencing repeated physical or emotional abuse, a child begins to believe, “I must have done something to deserve this. I’m bad.” These beliefs impact the way they think, feel and behave.
What can you do if you are experiencing the effects of trauma?
Talk to a trusted friend or family member about how you are feeling.
Re-engage in activities that are in line with your values. Many people get involved in volunteer activities, attend religious services, exercise, or spend time with friends and loved ones.
Seek help in the form of evidence-based psychotherapy, which can include approaches such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). These therapies have been extensively studied and found to be effective. In CBT, therapists help clients cope with thoughts and sensations related to the trauma and help them reconceptualize their understanding of the event and teach them coping strategies. They help clients see that they do not need to fear traumatic thoughts and memories, and therefore do not need to continue their harmful avoidance strategies. Therapists also assist clients in returning to their former day-to-day activities and help them become more involved in meaningful activities related to their core values, such as reconnecting more strongly with other people. If your distress interferes with your daily activities, a caring and supportive therapist can help you feel better.
Judith S. Beck is president of Beck Institute of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Tine Hansen-Turton is CEO of Woods Services.