Overcoming a Traumatic Experience

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.