Punya Srivastava explains how it is possible to turn the tables on trauma instead of being overcome by it
Struggle is part of everyday life for almost all of us. Each one of us faces upheavals of varying degrees at various points in our lives. However, those like sudden illness, accident, divorce, and death arouse powerful and distressing reactions in us on an emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual level.
Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with a distressing experience. A seeming non-event like a minor roadside altercation can also induce trauma in a person and can even render them paralysed for a few moments. Graver events like sudden illness, accident, or death leave their mark for a longer period, and in some people, forever.
According to Lucknow-based pranic energy healer, Pavni Ratnaker, a traumatic event immediately impacts one’s basic chakra or the root chakra and renders the person incapable of any coherent action for a few moments. Depending on the severity of the incident and the person’s spiritual health, the time duration of this impact may vary. As Laurie Matthews writes in his book, Behind Enemy Lines, which is about survivors of ritual abuse, “There is no one way to recover and heal from any trauma. Each survivor chooses his or her own path or stumbles across it.” Still, generally, people leave the healing from trauma to time. There is even a saying that goes like this: “Time heals almost everything. Give time, time.”
However, traumatic experiences are not easy to repress or forget. The distressing feeling of the troubling event replays over and over and, in due course of time, imprints itself on the nervous system. This is what we know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It leaves the person feeling helpless, emotionally disturbed and, well, traumatised.
Symptoms of trauma
You might have heard of American comedian and actor Pete Davidson—a well-known face on Saturday Night Live skits. Behind his charming persona, his acting skills, hilarious punch lines and linkups are the hardships he has faced since the age of seven, thanks to a severely traumatising event in his life when his father, Scott, died during 9/11. He was a New York firefighter who died during the call of duty in the said terrorist attack.
The loss of his dad affected Davidson greatly and made him a ‘lab rat’ for those studying the effects of the 9/11 attack on the children of the victims. According to Davidson, that incident was ‘overwhelming.’ He would often act out in school as a result of the trauma, at one point ripping his hair out until he was bald. He struggled with suicidal thoughts as a young boy.The rough time he had grieving, he tried to mask by doing comedy. His school days were a nightmare due to all the bullying he was subjected to. He didn’t have any friends and he attracted negative attention when he would ‘act out’ or ‘try to be funny’ when he apparently was not. Davidson’s behaviour left him as somewhat of an outcast in three separate high schools he attended. (He faced bullying in all three.)
Davidson acted out in a way unique to himself when faced with a traumatic experience. Every individual reacts in different ways, those that feel normal to them, as there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ reactions to trauma. Any response is a ‘normal’ reaction to ‘abnormal’ events. These reactions can be categorised in a wide range and can be taken into consideration while looking for symptoms exhibited by a traumatised person.
Emotional and psychological symptoms:
• Shock, denial, or disbelief
• Confusion, difficulty concentrating
• Anger, irritability, mood swings
• Anxiety and fear
• Guilt, shame, self-blame
• Withdrawing from others
• Feeling sad or hopeless
• Feeling disconnected or numb
• Insomnia or nightmares
• Being startled easily
• Difficulty concentrating
• Racing heartbeat
• Edginess and agitation
• Aches and pains
• Muscular tension
Trauma symptoms typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading as you process the unsettling event.
I clearly remember a car accident that I was involved in a few years ago, and the memory of it still makes me shudder. I was in the passenger seat of the car while my younger brother was at the wheel. A bigger car bumped into us from the passenger seat side and our car spinned out of control and rammed into a divider, after toppling two metal police barricades. I still get flashes of those metal barricades flying and thudding on the windscreen of our car, shattering it, and the car ramming into the divider. I had sleepless nights following this incident. And even after five years, I get a sinking feeling every time I am in a car and another vehicle zips past my side. My breath gets hitched and my eyes shut involuntarily for a few seconds. Even after taking driving lessons twice in these past years, I am still unable to muster enough courage to get behind the steering wheel. That’s because even when you are feeling better, you may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions—especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or something that reminds you of the trauma. In my case, it is sitting at the window seat of a moving car.
Causes of trauma:
• One-time events, such as an accident, injury, or a violent attack, especially if it was unexpected or happened in childhood.
• Ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighbourhood, battling a life-threatening illness or traumatic events that occur repeatedly, such as bullying, domestic violence, sexual violence, or childhood neglect.
• Commonly overlooked causes, such as surgery (especially in the first three years of life), the sudden death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship, or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, especially if someone was deliberately cruel.
Moreover, coping with the trauma of a natural or man-made disaster can present unique challenges—even if you weren’t directly involved in the event. Aren’t we all regularly bombarded by horrific images on social media and news sources of such disasters? Viewing these images over and over can overwhelm our nervous system and create traumatic stress.
How to heal
We are designed by nature to recover from trauma. Physically, our system shuts down and we run on basic. We feel like dead inside or terribly shocked or shaken. After the trauma, the system starts to recover and return to normal function.
Following are some ways to get past trauma:
• Get moving
Trauma disrupts your body’s natural equilibrium as it paralyses you into a state of fear. Burning off adrenaline and releasing endorphins, exercise, and movement can actually help repair your nervous system. Try to exercise for 30 minutes or more on most days; exercise that is rhythmic and engages both your arms and legs works best. Instead of engaging with your thoughts or listening to music, focus on your body and how it feels as you move.
• Avoid isolating yourself
Wanting to withdraw from others and from day-to-day life seems quite appealing in the event of a traumatic experience, but isolation only makes things worse. Connecting with loved ones face to face helps one heal. Also, connecting with others doesn’t have to mean one ‘has’ to talk about the trauma. Ask for support, as comfort comes from feeling engaged and accepted by others. Participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. Do ‘normal’ things with other people: things that have nothing to do with the traumatic experience.
Join a support group for trauma survivors. Being with others who are facing the same problems can also help reduce one’s sense of isolation, while volunteering can be a great way to challenge the sense of helplessness that often accompanies trauma.
• Self-regulate your nervous system
No matter how agitated, anxious, or out of control you feel, it’s important to know that you can change your arousal system and calm yourself. Not only will it help relieve the anxiety associated with trauma, but it will also engender a greater sense of control. If you feel disoriented, confused, or upset, a quick way to calm yourself is through mindful breathing. Simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each out-breath.
Allow yourself to feel what you feel when you feel it. Acknowledge your feelings about the trauma as they arise and accept them. At the age of 16, Davidson started going to open mic nights in New York City. This turned into the starting ground for his career and he started doing stand-up comedy that eased up the path to his SNL and acting career. “I never wanted people to know me as the son of a 9/11 victim. That’s why I started talking about this traumatic incident in a comic manner. I wanted to drop the heaviness through the help of something light, and this approach really worked. Things that I felt sad about, I talked about. That way, if it’s funny, it didn’t hurt anymore.”
• Take care of your health
After a traumatic experience, worry or fear may disturb your sleep patterns. A lack of quality sleep can exacerbate your trauma symptoms and make it harder to maintain your emotional balance. Go to sleep and get up at the same time each day, and aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
Avoid alcohol and drugs. Their use can worsen your trauma symptoms and increase feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.Eat a well-balanced diet. Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day will help you keep your energy up and minimise mood swings. Avoid sugary and fried foods and eat plenty of omega-3 fats—, walnuts, soy beans, and flax seeds—to give your mood a boost. Try relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises.
However, if you have tried all the above-mentioned ideas and are yet unable to cope with trauma-induced stress, try spiritual cleansing. Seek a healer or `a psychotherapist and take healing sessions. You can also learn energy healing modalities and address your PTSD issues by routine energy cleansing.
Energy healing modalities like reiki or pranic healing offer a safe, non-judgmental space, and treatments bring relief by activating a natural process to restore one’s emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. According to Pavni, one needs to cleanse and energise one’s root chakra and solar plexus chakra to relieve oneself of trauma-induced stress. Energising the root chakra provides physical strength while energising the solar plexus chakraboosts one’s courage. Also, flooding the crown chakra with divine energy washes away the trauma debris and makes one feel lighter.
• Taking inspiration
Mexican painter Frieda Kahlo survived polio, a serious traffic accident, and multiple miscarriages to become one of the greatest painters of her generation. German composer and musician Johann Sebastian Bach was orphaned at the age of nine and only 10 of his 20 children would live to adulthood. Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, musician, and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson was plagued by poor health and chronic depression throughout his lifetime. All of them had learned to channelise their negative experiences into inspiration for their work and use it creatively as a coping strategy for dealing with hardship.
However, it is imperative that people with a traumatic past need to act and make a difference, even in the smallest ways. Positive action restores a sense of control and directly counteracts the sense of powerlessness that is the identifying mark of trauma.
Positive psychology, developed by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, explains the above phenomenon with clarity. According to it, each individual is blessed with certain strengths, and recognition of these strengths in adverse times allows these individuals to thrive. This is why not everyone responds to trauma with a pervasive sense of helplessness. For some, the by products of trauma are significant growth, hope, and even empowerment.
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