In light of what has happened recently in Stillwater, Oklahoma, my amazing hometown since 1998, I feel compelled to write about trauma. Trauma research is both prevalent and compelling. I find that even a small amount of understanding of the nature of trauma and it’s effects on people is helpful. But even more important than understanding what trauma is, I want to help people know how to help.
Trauma is defined as an experience that causes psychological injury or pain. Trauma can be experienced first hand or second hand. That means for an experience to be traumatizing, one does not have to be present for it to do so. There are many documented cases of PTSD from the actions of tragic events such as 9/11 from people who were nowhere in the vicinity of the attacks.
To simplify this (and probably horrify my trauma research friends), I would like to explain it as this: trauma is processed in a part of the brain that is not meant to store memories. When trauma is experienced, that part of the brain that is processing the events also will hold things such as vivid sights, sounds, intense feelings and thus, when we access those memories, they are full of imagery. This is a major difference to where non-traumatic memories are stored. They are not full of vivid images or intense feelings. Think back to your last birthday…unless it was a trauma, you can easily conjure some images…some pleasant and some not so pleasant. But you won’t find yourself re-experiencing the feelings you felt at the time. You likely will not experience even the less than pleasant memories as intrusive and unstoppable. But with a trauma, touching base with this story can create a re-experience of the feelings you felt in that moment, numbing, difficulty pushing them back down which can lead to sadness, numbing out, crying at seemingly inappropriate times, sleeping problems, hyper vigilance (all senses on high alert), jumpiness and not caring about anything or anyone.
The goal of treatment is to move the traumatic memory to be stored with all those birthday parties, where it belongs. The goal of trauma work it to be at the point where you can think about the event but not be swept under by the powerful motion of remembering.
There is a process by which this occurs. The person who has experienced the trauma HAS to talk about it. And not just in broad strokes. They have to talk about the smells, sights, sounds, feelings, the thoughts that struck them and that are still going through their heads.
And someone has to listen. To sit with this person in the darkness of their experience without saying anything cliché. Without cutting them off because it’s hard to hear. It’s hard to hear because if you are truly listening, you’re feeling it with them. But listen and feel WITH them you must. Until they are exhausted and cannot talk any longer. Listen for faulty beliefs such as “I should have done more” or “It was all my fault.” Help them challenge that. Help them see that they did their very best in that situation.
And for God’s sake don’t just say “I’ll pray for you.” That’s just not enough. Actually hold their hand and pray WITH them in that moment. Let them hear your words.
Above all, if what you hear is bothersome to you, perhaps you find yourself experiencing some trauma from the experience of listening, well, then you need to talk to someone too.
This is how we heal, people. By processing it until all the hurt is sorted out. It’s done slowly, carefully and lovingly. Please know that you can reach out to your therapeutic community and know we are here for you. Let’s stand together: still strong, still loyal, still true.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.“ Leo Buscaglia
Whitney Warren-Alexander is a Licensed Marital and Family Therapist, Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor who resides in Stillwater, Oklahoma with her family. She owns the Warren Alexander Group, a group private practice serving the mental health needs of Stillwater and surrounding communities. She is also proud to call Oklahoma State her Alma Mater.