A Psychologist’s Advice on Dealing with Trauma
Written by Dr Brock Chisholm for Doctify.
The tragedy that occurred at Manchester Arena on Monday evening is one that has rocked, not only the UK, but the world. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the 22 people reported dead and the further 59 injured after the attack at pop star Ariana Grande’s concert.
Events of this kind are always shocking and devastating, especially when they involve children or young people. They can have profound affect on those present and even those hearing about them on the news and online.
In the wake of this tragedy, Doctify Psychologist Dr Brock Chisholm has some advice for those present, their friends and families and those in any way saddened or triggered by the news.
What are the consequences of a traumatic event?
Traumatic events can affect people in a variety of ways. This is true even if they were not at the scene, or if they did not have friends or family there.
This article looks at common reactions to traumatic events and what you should and should not do to help.
What difficulties might people experience?
- Nightmares about the event or various aspects, such as emotional content, that symbolise the event
- Memories of the event that are uncontrollable or make you feel as if you are experiencing everything again – these can be sights, sounds, smells or bodily sensations
- Feeling on guard, as if something may happen at any moment
- Actively avoiding reminders because they are emotionally painful or trigger unwanted memories and flashbacks
- Drinking more alcohol or using drugs
- Irritability or anger
- A significantly altered and negative view of yourself, the world or other people. For example: not trusting people, feeling high degrees of shame or that the world is very unsafe
If any of these apply to you, don’t panic. All of these reactions are normal and expected during the first month. They may last up to six months before things improve on their own.
What if these problems don’t go away?
If these difficulties persist, you may be suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
If they do not resolve, it is recommended that you seek help from a professional who is experienced in assisting people who have experienced traumatic events. Be careful to select the correct therapist.
It should be someone experienced in assessing and treating PTSD. Many therapists claim to be able to treat PTSD using little known treatments or ones without much evidence that they work.
There is no pill to cure PTSD. The recommended approach is to use a psychological therapy such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or EMDR.
Can’t I just ignore it and hope it will go away?
People often think that trying hard not to think about what happened is the best way to feel better. They try hard to avoid reminders, but this prolongs the difficulties. The therapies that work the best rely on actively thinking about what happened in a specific way. This helps to place the memories in the past, rather than feeling like the events are happening again or have just happened.
Who is most at risk of suffering these psychological consequences?
An event like an attack can remind people of other traumatic events and trigger similar difficulties or upsetting emotions. People most at risk are those who have suffered similar losses or experienced similar events. The attack in Manchester will particularly affect those who have lost children and loved ones in the past or have been in other explosions or attacks. It is expected that there will be an increase in flashbacks and nightmares to other events, or that those people will feel loss and emotional pain, or feel fearful and “on guard”.
What can be done to help just after a traumatic event?
After a traumatic event people want to help. And in their desire to help, they could make things worse. Single one off sessions, sometimes called debriefing, are not advised just after the trauma. It’s normally better to watch and wait for a month or so before seeking professional help.
Taking sleeping pills or benzodiazepines (Valium) just after a traumatic event makes it more likely that PTSD symptoms will develop. This is because they interrupt the brain’s ability to process what has happened in a normal way.
What should friends and family do?
If you are a friend or family of the person who has been affected by a trauma, let them know that you are there to listen, with compassion and without judgement.
Don’t try to force people to talk, but don’t advise them not to talk about it, or to try to forget it either. Respect their wishes but don’t collude in trying to avoid thinking about the trauma. That only makes things worse.
If longer than a month has passed and a person has not spoken about what happened and they are suffering with overwhelming emotions, painful memories, lack of sleep or nightmares, then encouraging them to talk to you, another trusted companion or seek professional help is a good idea.
Sometimes people think they don’t deserve happiness or are fearful and wish to hide away. Helping people to go out and engage in pleasurable activities is also helpful, particularly social activities.
Sign up at the top of this page to receive our next article to your inbox.
If you have been affected by anything mentioned in the above article and want to talk, you can contact Dr Chisholm by clicking the button below.