Trauma is a part of life. This is the adage of Trauma Specialist Peter Levine, who reminds us that most of us have experienced or will experience an event that feels threatening or foreboding in such a way that it shakes our sense of reality. This has been the case since the beginning of evolution. Our ancestors experienced trauma and our children will likely experience some form of trauma.
We are also wired to be social beings. As psychiatrist and trauma specialist Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk explains, “Our brains were built to help us function as members of a tribe.” We are wired to share our experiences, and as a species, we’ve been doing so for centuries. Recovery from trauma builds upon this tendency to connect with others, which in turn helps to propel the healing process. Most people will not need professional help in the recovery process. They will instead tolerate the “shake up” in the immediate aftermath of the trauma, share their experiences openly with those they trust, and gradually return to their normal routine.
PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, develops when nervous system responses that are designed to protect us after trauma persist when they are no longer helpful, and, in fact, contribute to more problems with day to day tasks such as relaxing, concentrating, sleeping, or engaging in everyday activities. These changes are to be expected in the immediate aftermath of trauma, but can become problematic when they do not naturally dissipate, and can cause people to feel marginalized from the rest of the tribe.
There are many reasons why some people might experience obstacles in the natural recovery process from trauma. For some, the rocky foundation from which they launched into the traumatic experience is not stable enough to support them in their later recovery. Some may not have friends and family whom they trust to share in their experience of recovery. And for some, the conditions under which they experience trauma do not allow for this natural recovery process.
This is often true for those who experience trauma during combat. They do not have the luxury of walking away from unsafe conditions, connecting with friends and family, and returning to their routine. They must instead endure harsh conditions for a defined period of time, and are eventually allowed time for recovery, usually among those whom they assume will consider them “crazy” for experiencing trauma-related symptoms under completely normal conditions at home.
Those of us who are not in the recovery process ourselves are well-suited to connect with those whom have experienced horror. This does not require a professional degree or even a thorough knowledge of the subject matter such as abuse, accidents, or war. Traumatic events are not choosey with their audience, nor are they selective with healing processes. People all over the world experience trauma right in their own backyards and those who support them are their neighbors, family, friends, religious groups, etc. We are those people.
Chances are, you are not in over your head, and if you feel like you are, you have every right to say so. You can always steer a loved one to professional help, but chances are, you can also show a little compassion in the moment. If you’re not in any condition to support someone through trauma, whether because of your own trauma experience or your own current battles (addiction, divorce, etc.), you can let your loved one know this in a loving way and steer them to someone who is more capable of providing this support. And perhaps get some help for yourself also!
Trauma recovery is, in a general sense, a community process. If this process is not progressing as expected for some, the Mental Health Clinic offers specialized treatments that aid in this process such as cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. These approaches help to pick up where the trauma survivor left off in their own recovery process.
Trained professionals can help those suffering from PTSD to be able to regulate their nervous system more effectively and to feel more “normal” again. However, the presence of one’s tribe remains just as important, if not more important, during the healing process. This includes cases when the recovery process is taking place years after the traumatic event itself. Believe it or not, you are designed to do just that, as is the Air Force tribe that surrounds you.