Tragedy and Trauma: How to help when we feel helpless.

There are not enough words to express the heartbreak we all felt this week. My thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those who lost loved ones and to the survivors who will never be the same again. As the bank holiday weekend enters, I sit thinking about the ripple effects that will play throughout the lives of so many and how there are incredible numbers of individuals and communities all around the world who are traumatised and suffering due to similar acts of violence and conflict.

As my thoughts overwhelmed me, my eyes begin to tear and the anxiety thuds in my chest, a feeling of helplessness floods throughout my being.

I look around my living room and my dining table, which has become a make-shift office (until my actual office is sorted) and I see a pile of books all with the interconnecting theme of trauma and violence. The idea of having a space to write has always been to share the things I’ve learned, in hopes together we can begin to think about solutions.

So while there is nothing I can directly do for those who were involved in this week’s tragedy, maybe I can add to the narrative around beginning the healing process because as much as we want things to carry on as normal, for many of us they don’t.

Last weekend I was reading a chapter from The Perversion of Loss: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Trauma in preparation for training I am running next week and within the book there is a chapter on ‘Traumatic events and their impact on symbolic functioning’ part of which I would like to quote:

“When an individual is traumatized by a sudden violent event, the impact on mental functioning is immense. There is an immediate period of shock and denial – the event is too large and too horrible to be taken in all at once, and the mind protects itself by trying to shut down… During periods in which the traumatizing event overwhelms the individual – or indeed the group – whatever capacity there may have been to trust in goodness, safety and predictability of the world and those that inhabit it is extremely limited. Someone or something did this, or didn’t stop it from happening. There is an overriding sense of persecution and mistrust. Everyone is suspect. Fear and hatred, together with an impulse to reverse the insult, the trauma, can come to dominate functioning…” – Caroline Garland

Now when reading this again today, I think about the aftermath of such an event and all the different layers of emotion and shock we feel. Many of us want to help but it is important not to let our own feelings overwhelm us and guide our actions. After any traumatic event, we need a period of calming down before action is taken in order to first understand and evaluate; for the record I am not talking from a government or security perspective, I speak as a practitioner and someone with an interest in the mind and the internalized ripple effects. When a traumatic event happens, including the youth murders we deal with too frequently in our communities, we hear the word trauma thrown about and want to work straight away to put interventions in place. Now in every case, there will be need for immediate practical support; medical care, police involvement, housing etc etc… There is also something else we need to learn to do, which I don’t see happening enough for a range of different reasons, this is learning to sit with our feelings. Rather than rushing to get involved and do something, part of the solution is taking time to think things through and become proactive, rather than reactive, which is extremely hard when working in crisis. However, working in crisis all the time has become part of our problem, at least when violence is concerned. This is, I believe, part of the impulse that Caroline Garland is describing in the above text.

After a traumatic event, those who were apart of the event will all experience a range of different emotions, it is part of our job, as practitioners, to help contain these emotions (this is why clinical supervision is important – see last blog) because we will not begin to see the full effects of the traumatic event until weeks or months later. Some people will be able to work through the experience, some will experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for a few months, which will then begin to go away on their own. Others will develop PTSD or another diagnosis and will need therapy or a version of clinical support. Some will be okay for a very long time and experience breakdown in what seems like a completely unrelated event years down the line. The important thing is to understand that a traumatic event will effect everyone in a different way and that, the majority of the time, we do not know if a person is traumatised until time has passed.

Now yes I know, there are interventions around rapid eye movement and others that I probably have no clue about, that are said to prevent an individual being traumatised if put into action straight after an event. I don’t know enough on these interventions to comment.

From my understanding and experience in regards to trauma, it is only when time has passed can the real internal work begin.

The aim of this piece of writing is to start get us (the community members, the front line workers and the practitioners) thinking about trauma because there are so many of us that struggle with feelings of helplessness when such devastating events happen, which is what often drives us into action.

It is hard to feel helpless, frustrated and restless but it is also important to understand these feelings and not just react to them. If you want to help create peace, we need to find balance between action and thinking, my belief is true action requires thinking through. Solutions require observation, analysis and participation before strategies can be developed.

So today I say the same to you as I say each week to my students, if you want to help with long-term solutions rather than reacting to crisis, learn to sit with your feelings.

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Understanding Trauma: A Psychoanalytical Approach (Tavistock Clinic) (The Tavistock Clinic Series

The Perversion of Loss: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Trauma (Whurr Series In Psychoanalysis)

 

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I am not a psychoanalysis nor am I a psychotherapist, I am in the training process and have great ambitions within the field, however I understand that I still misinterpretation writings and theories. Be patient with me. I use my own experience in the field, along with the knowledge I have gained and unique individual perspective of the world to add something new to the dialogue. This blog is my own personal opinion on a subject and of course, I could be wrong.

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TRAINING: An Introduction To Youth Violence – Thursday 1st June 2017, 10am – 2pm @ London Bridge

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