Overcoming a Traumatic Experience

car accident
You might feel traumatized after a bad car accident. How do you get past this?

If we're lucky, we will go through this life without facing some sort of traumatic experience. But most of us won't be able to escape that fate. Experts estimate that 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women will experience at least one trauma within their lifetimes [source: U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs]. No one can anticipate tragic events like almost losing your life when a speeding SUV t-bones your car while driving through an intersection or being held up at gunpoint during your nightly jog in New York City's Central Park.

No matter how, when or where it occurs, a traumatic experience is something that can stay with a person throughout his or her entire life. It shapes the essence of their very being and changes them in ways indescribable. But one thing's for certain: There is life after trauma. What kind of life depends on the person and what she's willing to do to make sure that the event becomes something that happened to her, rather than something that defines her. Read on to learn more about what trauma is and some ways to get through it.


What Trauma Is

To learn to overcome trauma, we need to first understand exactly what it is. Dr. Therese Rando, author of the upcoming book, "Coping with the Sudden Death of Your Loved One" and clinical director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss in Warwick, R.I., defines a traumatic event as any situation that a person perceives as totally inescapable, when they are confronted by an actual or threatened physical or psychological death of themselves or someone else. A psychological death might be an event where a person perceives that life as he knows it is over. Take the example of a man caught embezzling his clients' retirement funds who knows he's on his way to prison. His psychological death may be his feeling that he's going to lose everything.

Unexpected events like witnessing or living through a natural disaster, serious accident or violent crime can overwhelm a person and take an emotional toll on him. Sometimes there aren't any visible signs of harm to the body, but the emotional scars may just be beginning to form. That's why most people who experience traumatic circumstances have strong emotional reactions [source: American Psychological Association].


According to Dr. Rando, some people shut down or become emotionally numb. Others experience flashbacks of the event or become extremely irritable or jumpy when something reminds them of it. Some people avoid other people, places, and conversations and basically withdraw themselves from the world. Others turn to drugs or alcohol to medicate themselves.

One thing that victims -- and those who support them -- need to understand is there is no "one size fits all" formula on how survivors respond. That's why the range of emotions is called "normal reactions to abnormal circumstances" [source: Cohen].

Where do all these emotions come from? It's all in the brain, as we'll see on the next page.


It's All in Our Minds

woman at car
During a frightening experience, your brain sends signals to your body to fight, flee or freeze.
George Doyle/Valueline/Thinkstock

Feelings and reactions to trauma start in one place: the brain. We've all heard of fight or flight -- our bodies' physiological response that prepares us to "fight" or "flee" from a threat to our survival. Well, there's also a third "f": freeze.

During the traumatic episode, our brain can also send out biochemical signals for our bodies to become temporarily immobilized. Our brain is the one in control, not us. "People can become frozen during a traumatic situation, not because they are cowards, because their brain has instructed them to do so," says Dr. Rando. Stopping a person in her tracks is one of the many methods the brain will use to protect her during a traumatic experience.


A danger response may also unleash stress hormones that do things to your body like raising blood sugar, heart rate or adrenaline levels. After the traumatic situation is over, the body returns to normal. However, if the traumatic situation is prolonged or repeated, the brain may get "stuck" in a hyperalert state [source: Howard and Crandall].

Replaying traumatic experiences was extremely necessary during evolutionary times. After a caveman encountered a saber-tooth tiger and narrowly escaped with his life, his brain instructed him to relax because the threat was gone. It also reminded him of the experience, so he knew to stay away from tigers in the future.

In modern society, we don't need these reminders from our brains because they exist everywhere. People are forced to re-live the experiences again and again through comments made by others, media coverage and other avenues. Rando says the brain's job is to help us through the attack and develop survival skills for the future. But, she cautions, "When replaying the moment becomes your way of life, then it's outlived its usefulness."

So does that mean a person will never get over a traumatic experience? Turn to the next page to find out.


When You're Ready

Trauma survivors recover at different rates, so friends and family need to give them time to mourn and acknowledge that the situation is difficult. Some people will recover quicker than others, depending on the severity of the trauma; whether they are facing other issues at the same time; or how well they have coped with other traumas in the past. Some survivors experience comfort in talking about the event with loved-ones, or in a support group. Others may not want to do so and may confide to a diary instead [source: American Psychological Association].

When a person is ready, there are many options to help him learn to overcome their experience, including seeking professional help, medication, deep breathing, learning how to relax and release tension through body, and psycho-therapeutic techniques. Other techniques including joining a support group, starting a hobby and establishing a routine like exercising and eating meals at regular times [source: American Psychological Association].


Dr Rando counsels that people who live through traumatic experiences need to reconcile in their minds that there is the world they used to know, and the world they live in now. "To cope with trauma, you have to learn to make room for it in your life," she advises. "The trauma may end up being a part of your life story, but we want it to be one chapter, not the entire book. It might even be the biggest chapter, but it's still not the entire book."

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • American Physiological Association. "Managing traumatic stress: Tips for recovering from disasters and other traumatic events". (Sept. 19, 2011) http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/recovering-disasters.aspx
  • At Health. "Effects of Traumatic Experiences". Athealth.com (Sept. 13, 2011)http://www.athealth.com/Consumer/disorders/traumaeffects.html
  • Brain and Spinal Cord. "Brain Injury Statistics." (Sept. 28, 2011) http://www.brainandspinalcord.org/brain-injury/statistics.html
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Injury Center: Violence Prevention". (Sept. 28, 2011) http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Leading Causes of Death". (Aug. 28, 2011) http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lcod.htm
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Violent Crime". (Sept. 21, 2011)http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/violent-crime/violent-crime
  • Cohen, Martin. V. "Ten Steps to Healing from Trauma (Sept. 19, 2011). http://www.martinvcohen.com/trauma1.html-
  • Conner, Michael G. "Coping and Surviving Violent and Traumatic Events". (Sept. 13, 2011). http://www.crisiscounseling.com/traumaloss/CopingWithTrauma.htm
  • Houghton College. "Historical Background". Houghton.edu. (Sept. 13, 2011). http://campus.houghton.edu/orgs/psychology/ptsd/history.htm
  • Howard, Sethanne and Crandall, M.D., "Mark. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: What Happens in the Brain?" (Sept. 15, 2011). http://www.washacadsci.org/Journal/Journalarticles/V.93-3-Post%20Traumatic%20Stress%20Disorder.%20Sethanne%20Howard%20and%20Mark%20Crandalll.pdf
  • Rando, PhD, Therese, clinical director, The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss; author and lecturer in Warwick, Rhode Island, personal interview (Sept. 19, 2011)
  • Zawitz, Marianne. "Guns Used in Crime". September 2000. Firearmsid.com (Sept. 21, 2011) http://www.firearmsid.com/Feature%20Articles/0900GUIC/Guns%20Used%20in%20Crime.htm