Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written
and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D. and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., fafonline.org. Reprint is available
with written permission from the Foundation.
Integration of Traumatic Stress Part I
"After the crash, I felt like my whole life had been thrown up in the air and
then came down in fragments. And then it was up to me to put
it all back together."
–Survivor of an air disaster
findings about traumatic stress and how people heal. The last article reminded
the reader that while some survivors benefit from processing their emotions with
others, talking is not required in the healing process of every survivor. After the
second article, several readers asked for information about what research shows to
be helpful in recovering from trauma.
Recovery from trauma occurs when the survivor has fully reclaimed their power over
their lives—the power that was lost when the trauma occurred. As was stated in the
first writing in this series, the traumatic experience includes the initial crisis and all of
the events surrounding it, including how the organization and other agencies
responded to those who were victimized by the tragedy.
Before providing examples from our own research, we would like to share one of our
favorite resources that is available online and is a self-help guide which is
comprehensive, and written for the non-clinical audience. Dealing with the Effects
of Trauma: A Self-Help Guide (PDF) – Guide to the healing journey, including coping
strategies, where to find help for emotional trauma, and how to support recovery.
(SAMHSA's National Mental Health Information Center).
First and foremost, after surviving a trauma, whether there are physical injuries or
not, seeing a health care provider—be it one's primary care physician, a counselor
or another health care professional, for a checkup as soon as possible is always a
good practice. The above referenced guide stresses that regardless of who one
seeks support from, self-empowerment is key. The survivor must take charge of their
healing in every way to counteract the loss of control that the trauma took away.
Among the many suggestions for healing, at top of the list is maintaining a close
relationship with another person. Someone who offers validation, a sense of
connection and who accepts the fact that supporting the recovery of a trauma
survivor takes time, understanding, and patience.
Following are activities that many have identified as helpful. Journaling helps many
survivors see their progress over time. Some survivors are more comfortable writing
about their feelings, than talking about them. Research shows that writing can be as
effective in healing, as talking about one's emotions.
Finding creative outlets is a great way to channel the energy associated with trauma
and grief. Musical hobbies are very healing to many. Whether playing an instrument,
singing or simply listening to favorite musical pieces, music is a great way to spend
time in moving toward wholeness. Also, learning something new or developing a
different hobby can be a great way to direct one's energy in recovery.
Exercise and physical activity are at the top of the list for many survivors as they
discuss how they coped in the initial stages of recovery as well as over the long
term. Research on depression has clearly shown exercise to be highly effective in
the treatment of chronic depressive symptoms as well as post-traumatic stress
disorder. And when combined with spending time in nature, the positive effects of
exercise are greatly enhanced.
"I never saw a psychiatrist because I did not need to. But my horse probably did."
This quote is from a passenger who survived the crash of American Airlines Flight
1420, June 1, 1999 in Little Rock, AR. With the money he received from his
settlement, he purchased a horse. Every day for the first year after the accident he
rode his horse into the desert near his home in the Southwestern US. As he rode,
he expressed his feelings aloud, releasing emotions as they surfaced.
Riding daily allowed him to spend time outdoors where he could notice nature's
seasonal changes. Experiencing the changes in seasons reminded him of the
rhythm of life. The survivor began to see his life's journey in a greater context.
After a while he noticed that other things were more interesting to think about than
the crash. When this happened, he knew he was healing.
Regardless of the path a survivor chooses in recovering from trauma, ultimate
healing is best achieved when the survivor takes control of their own recovery.
Seeking support from family, friends, spiritual leaders, professional helpers, support
groups, and others one can count on, coupled with healthy activity results in
long-term adjustment and transcendence. No one gets over trauma, but we can
integrate the experience and re-claim our lives.
"The sovereign invigorator of the body is exercise, and of all the exercises
walking is best…and the weather should be little regarded."
Care Team and special assistance teams as well as all involved in responding to a
crisis are subject to secondary traumatic stress, also known as vicarious trauma.
Recommendations for those healing from secondary trauma would be the same as
for primary survivors. However, team members often get involved with helping
families and forget about their own needs. Unmanaged, this can lead to exhaustion,
burn out, and difficulty in re-entering one's home and work life, after the assignment.
Experience has shown the need for sufficient leadership to look after the employee
responders, while they are looking after other survivors. Leaders of the teams must
insure there are proper shifts that allow time for healthy meals and proper rest
breaks. And most importantly, reminding employees to call home and check in with
their own family members on a regular basis during deployment.
In one response where over 200 people died in an airline crash, team members and
family survivors spent the better part of three weeks in a hotel, waiting for the
deceased to be identified. The emotional toll that the tragedy engendered was
intensified by the close quarters and lengthy identification process. Despite the
small facilities, leadership made sure that the employees had meals in a private
room and encouraged the team members to take breaks and visit the park with at
least one other team member at specific intervals during the day. Team members
began to look forward to the change in scenery on these scheduled breaks and
appreciated getting out into fresh air. Having someone else to walk with for even
15-20 minutes allowed the team members to share thoughts and feelings about
whatever felt right for them. This free time to talk with a peer proved to be a bonus
to the exercise and fresh air in the park.
Whether referring to primary survivors or those who help them, how people heal
involves personal choice and requires commitment and patience on the part of all
involved. Publications like the one referenced in this article are readily available to
help educate the public and there is no shortage of helping professionals who can
provide guidance and additional information on the many options available today.
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