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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: Trauma Tool Kit

Friday, October 9, 2009

Trauma Tool Kit

How in the world do you define emotional trauma. It can be different for everyone. Unfortunately we have no shortage of examples of trauma today, emotional and other wise. Sometimes when people come in to talk to me, they come in because they have the (correct) idea that they can talk about anything and everything. That in my office their trauma is valid, even if somewhere in their mind they think that maybe its not, or that there are worse traumas in the world than theirs. Compare and despair. If you are suffering, than its valid. In my office I work with folks who have have survived various kinds of emotional wounding, physical attack, natural disaster and powerful events that have effected their functioning, outlook on life and emotional well being. The truth is that because everyone's make up and life circumstances are different, reaction to trauma varies greatly. In fact, what one considers traumatic can vary greatly.

A good friend of mine lost his wife more than a few years ago in a homicide bombing in Israel. After spending a few joyous weeks together in Israel, where she was finishing her teaching credentials, my friend returned to the states, where he was to await his wife's return in a few weeks. The day after he left she went for pizza and was standing directly behind the bomber in a crowded Jerusalem pizza restaurant when he detonated himself.

Tragedy, yes. Trauma? Certainly.

This past summer we joined friends on a rafting excursion down the Delaware River. As far as rivers go, the Delaware River is about as gentle as a grandma's arms holding a new babe. Really. Except that it is still a river. About halfway into our slow and drifty float, our dreamy reverie was interrupted by shrieks from behind us, about a quarter mile. The tube of our friend, which was carrying the father and a small boy of about four, snagged on some rocks and flipped over, sending the boy floating off. For about 5 seconds. Five very long, very frightening seconds. The father lost his grip and his glasses, but was, thank Gd, able to grab the boy's life vest before he was carried off down river. Gentle rivers still flow.

No tragedy. Trauma? Certainly. Especially for the mother who was watching from downstream.

Another angle. A couple, married 14 years, two kids. Contented days. Okay sex life, some money worries, but mostly life is good. She loves him. He loves her. They have the usual list of complaints and tolerances. But still they come together each night. Comfortable, familiar. Safe. (I know you see this coming). She one day finds, accidentally at first, (the real snooping will come later), a text from someone named Bunny.

At first, the wife is curious. Bunny? She actually forgets about it for a month (part of her just does not want to know, and part of her knows that in a million years he would never...). And besides, all the text said was "got your message." Probably a client.

Fast forward a few months to her walking in the door early from work one Saturday, through the back door, to overhear him on the phone saying, "I love you too, just give me some time. You are in my heart. "

Betrayal. Yup. Trauma. Yes. So what to do? Well, in each instance, and again, there are too many more, but I wanted to bring you the idea that symptoms of trauma, while they vary from person to person, can and do include: persistent intrusive thoughts, excessive thinking and ruminating, nightmares, recurrent dreams, loss of appetite, or excessive, difficulty concentrating, speaking, panic, confusion, excessive irritability, mood swings, fatigue, aches, pains, loneliness, feeling separate, frightened or guilty. And more. Of course, more.

Emotional trauma does not have to be the result of physical harm. Difficult break ups, loss, betrayal, can all cause emotional trauma. We don't choose to be traumatized, but we can choose to treat our trauma. We can use the trauma tool kit. We can aim to be Trauma Free. Its not so much about letting go, I think, as it is about moving forward.

Talk. To an understanding supportive ear. Talk. Talk. Talk.

Rest. Give your body and mind a break from the thinking. Tell yourself, its time for my rest.

Assure. Assure yourself that time and good care can and will bring healing and relief.

Understand. Grace yourself your reactions and learn about your own needs and processes.

Meaning. Keep an active list of the people and things, accomplishments that have meaning.

Accept. What happened happened. Trying to rearrange it in your mind will not undo it.

Forgive. This can be a long road. But forgive and live. Look for ways to let go of anger and resentment. Forgiveness brings a lot of relief with it. Keep yourself on the list of people to forgive.

Rely. On a power greater than yourself. Pray. You do not have to be religious to be spiritual.

Easy. Easy does it. Go gently with yourself and others.

Excel. Create. Do something new. Let yourself move forward. You may need to grieve for a while, but you can still create.

And please note: There is no hammer in the tool kit. Taking a look at your fears, your history, your place in events in your life is often very healing. But not with a hammer.

The guy who's wife was murdered created an organization dedicated to spreading kindness. The friend who's son almost went down river said a prayer for the victims of 9/11 whenever she started to think about the moment she saw her son almost lost. The wife who's husband was leaving created a website devoted to helping women repair their marriages or survive divorce.

You don't have to get big about it though. A neighbor of mine lost a business and a friendship a few years back. To her, it was a trauma. She suffered a long time from many of the above symptoms. But she is free now, she tells me. She says that she forgives herself for being so hurt, and so hurtable. She forgives her friend, for hurting her, and she has started therapy to learn more about how she can succeed and grow in new and creative ways.

Sometimes, trauma brings with it loss and grief. There are theories that say that the brain itself is deeply involved in how we absorb emotional blows and recover from grief. Check out my good friend Fran Schumer's article for the NY Times on the topic. On unending suffering and the brain.

Somewhere in our hurt psyches, we can tend to our brains, to our broken hearts, to our shocked minds. We can get help. We can. We can take a look at what our life has become if trauma and grief are ruling it. We can dive under the resistance to get help and take good care of ourselves.


Susan said...

Awesome post. Thank you.
I especially like that you mentioned there is no hammer in the Kit.

Ally said...

This is great. I am mulling over "accept" about how trying to rearrange it in your mind can't undo it. I guess you mean not to get stuck in "if only"? I wonder how much to think about the aspects of the trauma, the chronology, etc?

Melissa Groman, LCSW said...

Thanks Susan,

Yes: No hammers!


Melissa Groman, LCSW said...

Hi Ally, and thanks. Good point, I should be more clear. Yes, getting stuck in the "if onlys.." can be debilitating. Trying to make it "unhappen" or not be true...though of course with some trauma the brain stays on shock or stun until the mind is more ready or able to absord, process and feel...that can be a good thing for a period of time.

It is normal to think and rethink about the aspects of the trauma, sometimes it does help to try to sort through it...I think it depends...there are often many parts to a trauma, thats why my first stop is always to have someone to talk to...there is also a point or points when thinking about too much becomes debilitating as well...and its okay to take a break from the thinking.

Glad you posted,

Lisa Marie said...

Amazing post. I learn so much with every topic you write about here, whether it pertains to my life right now (as this one does) or how it might in the future. Thank you!

sarah said...

Hey Melissa, this ia an awesome post. Amazing. Thank you sooo much for this. You are a great counselor....Sarah

Melissa Groman, LCSW said...

Thanks LM and Sarah...

Always good to have feedback! Much appreciated! Glad you visit!


Shen said...

There actually is a hammer in my tool kit.
One day, when I was facing my past, I was in walgreen, picking up my meds. I saw a hammer in an aisle, as I walked to the counter, and decided to buy it. I didn't really have a plan for it at the time, but it felt right.
So, there I was, at the counter, getting an antidepressent, mood stabelizer and some xanax... and a hammer.
The girl behind the counter looked at me a little strangely. Finally, as she was bagging up the items, she asked, "So, you gonna smash something?"
With a gleam in my eye, I responded, "Sometimes you just have to."
How I managed to keep a straight face is beyond me. By the time I got to my car I was laughing so hard I wasn't angry anymore.

I did eventually use the hammer. I put some old ceramic flower pots in a box, in the garage, and put on my sunglasses (for protection) and smashed them to sand. It was a great anger release.
My therapist told me she thinks buying the hammer was part of "reclaiming my personal power".

Shen said...

as I reread that, it sounded as if I smashed my sunglasses after putting them on! No... I smashed the flower pots.

Melissa Groman, LCSW said...


Good point. We of course need outlets for our frustrations and pains, and smash therapy, done safely, can have its place. I suppose I am just careful to say that we should not use a hammer, literally or figuratively on ourselves. We can always take a look at our own stuff, and we should really, but gently, not with self attack. And thats usually easier said than done...thanks as always for posting!


Zan said...

Good tool kit and it's great that you wrote an instruction manual for it! There's a lot of good points in this post and as I read it I find myself thinking 'it sounds so simple!' I think.. the solution is actually quite simple but it's the mind that makes it all so very complex and difficult.
It's actually quite amazing when you think about it, how the mind works and how often the mind trips us over.
Sorry for rambling, not quite sure where I was going with all this.
Thanks for a great post and the instruction manuals for the tool kit!

Melissa Groman, LCSW said...

Zan, Rambling is welcome here! And Yes, the mind is an amazing place.


Cory Aidenman said...

Thanks for the post, Your post will help people with surviving divorce emotionally.

Cory Aidenman said...

Separation and divorce really brings a lot of hurt for both individuals who used to believe that their love will see the through, only to be frustrated by so many things that caused their break up. The proceedings even add more insult to injury, as both undergo rigid questioning and tense dialogue.