Reacting to Trauma
A psychologist on understanding the various responses to trauma.
People react differently to traumatic events.
This is true in the realm of emotions, cognitions and behaviors. Emotionally, some may experience sadness while others feel anger or anxiety. Cognitively, there may be those who wonder how or why the incident occurred, others that attribute blame (to themselves or others), while yet others derive a deep meaning from the experience.
From a behavioral perspective, some people may choose to isolate, while others seek to enhance connection. Some may sleep more, while others find it difficult to rest. There are those who experience a decrease in appetite, whereas others find it difficult to limit their food intake. It is not uncommon to experience difficulty with concentration, nor to find oneself hyper-focused on specific tasks.
Any and all reactions to trauma are normal. Even those that may seem “abnormal” for the individual. Put another way, abnormal reactions to abnormal events is perfectly normal.
The 3 Fs
The brain is hard-wired to respond to danger in one of three ways. These are known as the three Fs: Fight, Flight and Freeze. While, when confronted with danger, one of these options may provide greater security than the others, how one reacts is often more a result of impulse than choice. This is important to understand for individuals who question their reaction to a given event. Wondering why you did “X” as opposed to “Y” is often a pointless path to explore, as your brain tends to take control in moments of danger and acts without consulting your thoughts.
The fight and flight reactions result in a surge in brain activity, which in turn provides energy which opens the neurochemical gates for the physical strength needed to engage or escape. The freeze reaction falls on the other end of the spectrum. The brain’s activity slows, the neurochemical gates close, and cues the body to “shut down” and freeze in an effort to protect itself from the external danger.
Post Trauma Reaction
For a majority of individuals, the opening or closing of the neurochemical gates during a traumatic experience is temporary. When the danger subsides the gates return (either immediately or eventually-can take a few months), to their pre-danger position.
In other cases, the gates remain in the danger-reaction position for a longer period of time. This is a biological reality that can be viewed on brain scans.
For those whose gates flung wide open, they may experience an increase in intense emotions, feelings of agitation, and an overall sense of hyperarousal even in the absence of danger. This might be particularly true when they experience situations that trigger memories of the event that transpired.
If their danger-reaction was to freeze, they may find themselves feeling a general sense of numbness and feeling removed from life. As Trauma Psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. notes, emotional numbing is “the outward manifestation of the biological freeze reactions” (The Body Keeps the Score, p. 72).
It is not uncommon, particularly for individuals who experience multiple traumatic events or a prolonged trauma, to alternate between the two above reactions. The shift may even take place within the span of a few minutes. This experience of bouncing between hyperarousal and hypoarousal can occur regardless of the makeup of the initial reaction.
For individuals who experience such reactions and find them to be negatively impacting their life, there is help. Psychotherapy and medication may prove helpful with understanding one’s experiences, managing their reactions, and helping with limiting the uncomfortable emotional sequalae of one’s experiences.
More About Feeling Numb
Feeling numb, while seemingly an oxymoron, is a “normal” reaction to trauma. Emotional numbing may be understood as an individual’s inability to feel emotions despite an awareness that there is valid reason for them to exist. The recognition that “I know that I should feel something, but I don’t actually feel it.”
This is analogous to getting a Novocain shot from the dentist. He may squeeze your lip to test if your nerves are numb. If they have achieved numbness, you are aware that his squeezing warrants your experiencing of pain, however you have no such feeling. Your lip is numb.
Similarly, an individual who attends the funeral of a loved one, but feels numb. He is aware that he misses the person and is sad that they are gone, but is unable to experience feelings that match this recognition. The individual cares, but is unable to feel. He is emotionally numb.
Importantly, this reality is in stark contrast to one who experiences apathy, a state of lack of caring.
In the aftermath of tragedy or trauma, individuals exhibiting an over-expression of emotions are often given more attention than those who exhibit inhibited emotions or numbness. As Van Der Kolk notes (p.73) explains, “The acting-out kids tend to get attention; the blanked out ones don’t bother anybody and are left to lose their future bit by bit.” It is for this reason that attending to even those who might appear okay, is of such great importance.
Finally, feeling numb is a reaction to trauma that is rooted in both biology and psychology. It is not a choice nor is it reflective of an individual’s degree of caring or humanity. Just because one may not feel does not mean they do not care.
Throughout my 13 years working with veteran’s struggling post trauma, I have noticed the significance of interpersonal connection as a mechanism for healing. The notion of having a “battle buddy,” while meant for times of combat, tends to prove highly beneficial during life in general.
Trauma and tragedy are easier to weather when accompanied by others. Those others need not experience the same event, have the same reaction, nor be of any close relation. They simply need to be there. It is my hope that we all make the effort to show up for each other during this time and take comfort in the battle buddy who we know has our backs.
Practical mental health recommendations by Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox
Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is the Director of Project Chai, the crisis intervention, trauma, and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline.
The images of the wounded and the stunned, and the unthinkable reality that we are facing casualties and horrendous losses, has entered our consciousness. The news, the reports, and sounds and the news clips ricochet through our hearts and minds. And we are deeply saddened. And we are scared. And we are very worried, and panic may be on the rise all around.
This is not the time to look for interpretations or to hunt for meaning. We do not know "why" and that is not given to us. It is far too early for anyone to rush to cope by trying to make sense of a tragedy this massive, and so far-reaching throughout the Jewish world. We try our best to slow down the racing thoughts and to collect ourselves. That is a healthy step, because all of those who pulsate within with pain, sadness and fear, and all of those still numbed and in shock, need first to regroup. We need that step for our own wellbeing, and those who are turning to us in panic and confusion – our children, our students, our relatives – need support and attention. They need that from us, now.
Parents and adults: check in with yourself. Identify your own reactions, because it is normal to react to tragic news. It is not normal to have no reaction at all. Notice your thoughts – disorganized, fixated and hyper-focused, obsessively worried, image-occupied, flashback memories – all of those are thought reactions, cognitive reactions, which can follow shocking, traumatizing information.
Notice your emotions. They are not the same as your thoughts, and need your acknowledging, too. Sad, anxious, scared, tense, irritable – there are a range of emotions following the flood of traumatizing information and you want to be mindful of them. Physical sensations – they happen as well, following crisis events – and one might be suddenly energy-absent, hyper, restless, nauseous, insomnia.
Be aware of how you are reacting within. Behavior can seem different, you may have difficulty focusing. We each react, we all react our own ways, and step one is be aware that you are affected by this, and identify how you are reacting.
Find a trusted friend or mentor, and talk through your distress. This is an essential next step in being able to regroup and reorganize. This is not a time to be judging, to be critical or to make suggestions that sound good but may seem insensitive. Listen. Be supportive. Offer gentle encouragement, and not attempts to discourage anyone from having and sharing their current struggle.
Those are tools for adults. They enable and empower you to address others, including your children. Do so, and recall these guidelines:
- Encourage your children to share what they have heard, and how they have reacted.
- Halt the gossip and rumors, and avoid the excessive amplification of fact and assumption which often invade the media.
- Do not try to downplay with false optimism unless you know for certain that there is no personal cause for a youngster to be scared or worried about loss of loved ones or friends.
- Younger children do not need to hear or see gore or horrible detail.
- Older children deserve to have their questions validated but again, move towards cautious reassurance rather than generating more fear in them.
- Validate the soul-searching questions some older children pose, but keep them with a perspective that we do not yet know all of the answers.
- Be attentive to the family member or student who shows excessive distress, and seek consultation if their behavior or functioning concerns you.
- Assure those who turn to you that you will keep them advised as more information comes forth. They should turn only to you and to responsible, trusted adults as needed
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