Although we all experience trauma in our own way, most people find it difficult to just “bounce back” — it can take days, weeks, even months. Family systems therapist and social worker Melissa De Klerk explains how to deal with trauma (see the five methods below), explore your feelings and gain a new perspective.
Common signs that you’re traumatised
Fatigue, lack of energy and health issues such as tensed muscles, headaches, upset stomach and low immunity are often experienced during trauma. Melissa has had patients who report lack of appetite, poor concentration and high anxiety levels. “Anxiety plays out in problems such as being ‘on edge’ and hyper-alert all the time, irritability, poor concentration and mood swings,” she says.
On an emotional level, patients may experience guilt, self-blame, denial, anger, sadness and emotional outbursts. Sleep is also affected through disturbances such as nightmares, flashbacks of the traumatic event, and intrusive thoughts and memories.
How do you recover from trauma?
Recovery is a process, not a quick-fix — and the answers often aren’t easy. It’s important to connect with a supportive mental health professional to be aware of how other past traumas could also be triggered, to debrief and reflect about its impact on your life. “Talk therapy in a safe environment enables you to explore pain, shame, guilt and fear and also to find healthy coping mechanisms,” adds Melissa.
Professional help shouldn’t be intimidating
When working with a victim of trauma, and often complex trauma (multiple layered trauma over a period of time), Melissa says it’s important to create a safe space that allows someone to be vulnerable. “Talking about a traumatic experience is sometimes difficult, [so we] also make use of drawings, music and metaphors to express emotional conflict and engage with the self,” she says. Dealing with trauma is always approached from a holistic perspective. Risky behaviour patterns and habits will also be assessed, such as harmful use of alcohol, poor work-life balance and poor self-care.
Simple methods to deal with trauma
1/ Creative journalling
This method is most effective to deal with unresolved feelings as they emerge: words, doodles and bullets all contribute towards exploring and processing underlying thoughts, feelings of guilt and shame and also to become aware of a sense of hopefulness.
2/ Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)
CBT helps to identify negative thoughts, feelings and behaviour; you’ll learn tools to deal with triggers and retrain our brain. Psycho-education empowers you to understand trauma, identify typical post-trauma symptoms and how to deal with them, and realise that you are not going crazy.
This involves getting enough rest and regular meals. Irritability from sleep deprivation and poor diet rob you of the ability to deal with a stressful situation. A good exercise programme will relax stressed muscles, release adrenalin and boost feel-good endorphins. Increased use of substances (alcohol, caffeine, smoking) and social media to numb anxious feelings are red flags of unhealthy stress and need to be addressed.
4/ Connect with friends and family
Trauma victims often isolate themselves, and appear numb and withdrawn. Connecting with a community of caring friends, family and colleagues will provide much-needed social support, a sense of belonging and safety.
A ritual towards self-forgiveness, such as writing a letter to yourself, doing a meditative walk/hike, planting a tree or building a rock sculpture, can help you process your feelings and gain closure.