The impact of trauma can be complex and hard to make sense of. Although everyone’s experience will be different, there are some common changes in mood, thinking and behaviour. Survivors of trauma often experience higher levels of anxiety, irritability, anger and low mood. Negative or critical thoughts about themselves or the world in general are common, and often accompanied by intrusive recollections of the trauma (or parts of it). The body commonly remains in a hyper-aroused state for some time following a trauma, contributing to difficulties with sleep and concentration, a heightened startle response and a state of high alert (often called hypervigilance). The distress caused to a person by remembering the traumatic event often leads them to, understandably, avoid thoughts, feelings or memories of what happened, as well as any reminders of the trauma.
Usually, these experiences lessen, naturally, over time as the brain and body makes sense of what has happened. For a minority, however, these symptoms can develop into mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other anxiety disorders and/or depression. In such cases, it is important to seek professional support. With the right kind of treatment, it is possible to recover from a traumatic experience, and some people even experience what has been called “post-traumatic growth”.
Self-care is vital for any trauma survivor and can have significant benefits. Self-care is when a person chooses to care for themselves in the best way, they can in that moment. It has physical benefits (such as reducing the body’s elevated arousal state) as well as psychological benefits (such as altering mood and unhelpful thinking patterns). Usual self-care habits are often dropped in the immediate aftermath of a trauma, as they can seem too effortful or are perceived as unimportant or unhelpful. However, engaging, as best you feel able, in moments of self-care will have a huge impact on recovery from trauma. It can feel empowering to take a degree of control back after experiencing such an out-of-your-control life event. Below are some self-care strategies which have been shown to help.
MOVEMENT & NUTRITION
Do not underestimate the power of moving your body and fueling it in the best way. Changes in appetite can lead to over or under-eating or eating different types of food to normal. Maintaining a balanced, healthy diet and good hydration levels really will make a difference to how you feel. So too will movement. Try to get up and out of the house every day – even a short gentle walk will have benefits.
SLEEP, REST & RELAXATION
The body’s hyper-aroused state post-trauma makes these three tasks very difficult, but they are vital to recovery. Even short bouts of sleep, rest or relaxation will make a difference.
Try to ensure good sleep habits, such as avoiding time on your phone before bedtime, having a nightly wind down routine and ensuring your bedroom feels a safe and comfortable space. Relaxing essential oils can be helpful, either from a diffuser or a few drops on your pillow. If nightmares of the trauma wake you, get out of bed, turn a light on, walk around, seek comfort from a loved one or try saying out load a pre-prepared soothing statement (such as “I am safe now”) to help ground you in the present moment.
In the absence of sleep, rest and relaxation can be a beneficial substitute. Make a list of activities which you think might provide a sense of calm and peace. Then work through your list. Ideas could include taking a candlelit bath, reading an uplifting book, taking in a pleasant view, meditation, yoga or stretching. Everyone’s list will be different so make sure you choose activities that are truly restful to you and try not to be influenced by what you or others think you should find relaxing.
You may feel an urge to withdraw from others, and whilst some alone time may be important for rest and relaxation, too much of it can be unhelpful. Surround yourself with people whom make you feel safe, loved and cared for. Tell them what you need in that moment (be it something objective like a cooked meal or psychologically comforting like a big hug), and then embrace the support that comes your way. If you don’t feel you have any existing social connections who can fulfil this role, reach out to support groups or professionals, who may be able to guide you in ways to meet this need.
MOOD BOOSTING ACTIVITIES
Activities which before the trauma gave you a sense of pleasure or meaning, can often feel unable to serve that purpose post trauma. This reflects the temporary changes in your body and mind following trauma and should not be taken as an indication that such activities are unhelpful. It is useful to acknowledge this and manage your expectations appropriately. Engaging in activities which you previously enjoyed, even if they don’t feel enjoyable in the moment, will help to gradually bring back your sense of joy. Excluding such activities is likely to maintain, or worsen, low mood and anxiety. You may like to consider new activities which you think you could enjoy even if you’re unsure, such as exercise classes or sports, personal hobbies, arts and craft, reading, watching movies, singing, dancing, board games – try anything you think could help.
Intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares of a trauma can result in “reliving” the trauma, a sense that it is happening now and not in the past. They can bring back feelings and thoughts you may have had at the time of the trauma, such as a feeling of being unsafe or powerless. Grounding strategies are tools which facilitate the grounding of yourself in the present moment, therefore increasing your sense of safety and control. Grounding strategies which may be helpful include looking at a recent photo or video of somewhere or someone that makes you feel safe, smelling a soothing perfume or oil, drinking ice cold water, listening to calming music or a podcast, talking with a friend or using gentle self-touch to hug yourself.
If symptoms do not lessen over time (at least one month following the trauma) or you, or others, are concerned about risk of harm to yourself or others, then it is important to reach out for professional support. Evidence based psychological therapies such as Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) have been proven to help recovery following trauma, particularly for people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other therapeutic approaches are helpful for addressing depression or general anxiety symptoms resulting from trauma. All these therapies are offered at Central Minds.
If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Dr Browne or would like to learn more about trauma therapy, please contact us today.