In 1991, when I was 17 and living in Tel Aviv with my family, a loud siren woke me from a peaceful sleep. We knew what it meant. We also knew we had to do. I ran, shaking and crying, with my family to our safe room, where we bolted the door and sealed it for protection.
About three minutes later we felt and then heard huge blasts. Our house shook and rattled. I was terrified. I was sure this was a chemical attack, and that we would die. But it wasn’t a chemical attack. It was a conventional missile—and the first night of a war that required us to sleep for weeks in that safe room.
Eventually the war ended, and people returned to their routines. Most people seemed fine, moving on quickly. For me, “moving on” was harder and more complex. My experience landed me, although it took me many years to realize it, in the community of trauma survivors. Although some of us might seem to be managing just fi ne, none of us is here by choice. And the truth is that our reactions are a normal response to an abnormal situation.
Trauma takes things away from us—some of which can’t ever be returned. For some survivors, the losses are tangible, like people we loved or a body that once functioned perfectly. For others, the losses are intangible, like a sense of uncomplicated wholeness or pristine memories of beloved times and places.
Either way, coming to terms with irreversible loss is an essential part of trauma integration and recovery.
Today, I am a trauma therapist, working daily with survivors of debilitating trauma. Most of my clients suffer from complex and developmental trauma resulting from neglect, abuse or exposure to unusual stress in the early years of life. Here are a few things I tell my clients, and myself, on a daily basis.
Trauma Responses Are Unique
While we all react in similar ways when we’re in immediate danger, our reactions after the threat is over differ greatly from one person to the next. Even people from the same family can have differing responses to the same event. Only you can define how a traumatic event affects you. Only you can define how it feels to be in your own body. No one else can know (or tell you) how it feels to be you.
Trauma Lives on in the Body and Senses
Trauma can impact all of our systems: physical (sleep, appetite, digestion), emotional (feelings of pain, anger, shame, guilt, survival guilt), mental (difficulty concentrating and retaining information), spiritual (meaning of life, God) and social (relationships with family, friends, strangers). In some ways, we’re like a sponge for stress and trauma. And like a sponge, we accumulate it until there is no space to accumulate any more.
On a neurological level, trauma creates what I call an “emergency highway” in the body. During trauma, sounds, sights, smells, thoughts, emotions and movements all blend together when our fight-or-flight-or-freeze response mechanism is triggered. We’re gifted with this primitive survival system to cope with crisis. We run faster and fight harder when it’s activated.
But once it’s created, this highway never goes away. Some people have a hard time getting off of it and stopping themselves from re-entering. Every time we smell, see, hear or taste something or feel something that reminds us of what happened to us, we’re back on the emergency highway again. Usually, we’re not even aware that our emergency responses have been triggered. We’ve been on this highway so often that it almost comes naturally.
Trauma Stories Aren’t Always Helpful
The urge to tell and re-tell our story after trauma is understandable. Years ago, therapists considered this helpful and encouraged extensive “debriefing.” But research has found that telling the traumatic story over and over is ineffective in bringing relief from symptoms and is even sometimes harmful. Every time we tell our story, we relive it, and the imprint on our brain and body becomes more permanent.
Trauma Integration Requires Self-Care
The pull to withdraw and rest is powerful for many survivors and should be honored. But some activity, even if it’s slow and gentle, helps reset and support your nervous system. Go for walks with someone with whom you feel safe. Give and get as many hugs as you can from your loved ones. Eat as cleanly as possible, and drink plenty of fluids, especially those that have restful associations (such as chamomile with honey or water with lemon or mint). Try to avoid violent or loud music, movies and video games. Reduce your intake of sugar and stimulating drinks as much as possible. You may feel that you need stimulants, but with your nervous system already on high alert, your goal should be to support it, not activate it.
Trauma Survivors Are Resourceful
The moment you experienced trauma, your survival system called upon unusual resources to help you survive. Most survivors are barely conscious of the resources that enabled them to still be here today. These resources are not always experienced as “good,” but they are helpful—such as the fear response
that makes you alert when you cross a highway. These resources are always there, and they emerge powerfully in times of crisis, helping you stay alive.
The discovery of these resources after trauma—what therapists call posttraumatic growth—comes in its own good time, sooner for some and later for others. If you’re in the latter group, ask yourself the following: What personal resources have helped me hold on to life even when it’s most challenging? What gives me the energy to continue? The answer to these questions could enable you to eventually see resources you possess that you might have never recognized.
We all have resources due to the mere fact that we’re alive. When we don’t recognize our resources, it doesn’t mean that we lack them; it means that we lack self-compassion. We feel not good enough, ashamed, guilty or hung up on all the “shouldas/wouldas/couldas” that often follow trauma.
I have a lot of experience in the battle for self-compassion. It’s a hard practice to maintain, but for me and many of my clients, it’s the best resource for dealing with the pain of past events and fears of the future. In fact, I would argue that self compassion is key for trauma integration. When we’re kind to ourselves, our brain pathways “expand.” When we criticize ourselves, they “tighten.” So, try telling yourself, “It’s okay to feel pain. I don’t like to feel sad/angry/lonely, but it’s okay to feel that way.” Acknowledging this helps your nervous system relax.
Remember: You are always doing the best you can at any given moment. Given a choice, you may have responded differently to events at the time of trauma. But your survival mechanisms took over and helped you do whatever it took to stay alive. And we’re glad you’re here.
Odelya Gertel Kraybill, Ph.D., LCPC has worked as a consultant and trauma therapist for the UN and NGOs around the world. A Fulbright scholar, she developed the Expressive Trauma Integration Approach: a multidisciplinary approach to trauma treatment. Odelya has conducted research in the Philippines, Lesotho and Israel, she has a private practice for trauma survivors in the DC Metropolitan area, she trains human service practitioners nationally and internationally, and she is an adjunct professor in George Washington University’s art therapy graduate program.
Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of the Advocate.