Friday, September 11, 2009

Trauma in Our Lives, Part One: Anniversary of 9/11

by Dr. Jessica Bloomfield

On the 8th anniversary of September 11th, we are once again reminded of the events that took place on that beautiful Fall day. Most of us can still recall exactly where we were when we heard the news of the unthinkable—terrorist attacks on our home front. We remember that moment when the safety and security we knew so well were whipped out from underneath us, and we could no longer go about our everyday lives thinking of terrorism and tragedy as things that happen far away to other people. The World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania became epicenters of hurt, suffering, and pain. Like an earthquake, the effects are felt intensely at the center, and have ripple effects that are far reaching, marked by aftershocks, destruction, and devastation; and life is never quite the same.

Thus is the nature of trauma.

Trauma comes in many forms, affects people near and far, forever changes lives, and leaves some people unscathed. Physical scars are left as well as emotional ones—and some hurts never seem to fully heal, leaving the bearer forever changed in both good and bad ways.

What constitutes a trauma? A trauma is an event which happens outside the realm of “normal” experiences. It overwhelms a person’s regular coping abilities. Trauma comes in many different forms. Wars, hurricanes, school shootings, rapes, abuse, sudden deaths, and car accidents are only a few examples. Trauma can affect a person emotionally, biologically, and socially. It impacts survivors as well as family members, friends, and acquaintances.

Emotional reactions to trauma vary widely and there is no right or wrong way to feel after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Two people could experience a terrible car accident together and may respond in very different ways or even recall the event differently. Genetics, personal history, feelings about control over the event, gender, and physiological reactions are some of the factors that affect whether or not a person will experience psychological difficulties following a traumatic event. Approximately 60% of people living in the U.S. will be exposed to at least one traumatic event during their lifetime.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a clinical diagnosis for people who have experienced a trauma and experience specific distressing symptoms afterwards. It is estimated that 9 to 15 percent of the general population in the U.S. have PTSD, although that number rises to 50% for women who have been raped. While less than a quarter of people who experience a trauma develop full-blown PTSD, there are many who still suffer from posttraumatic stress symptoms, which can greatly affect their lives.

It can be difficult to recognize the impact of trauma, and feelings of shame, anger, powerlessness, depression, and anxiety are common. Some people believe they should not feel the way they do following a trauma; some believe they could have prevented what happened, or that having difficulties means they are weak. Some feel as if they are going crazy. It is important to know that posttraumatic stress symptoms are normal reactions to abnormal situations.

So, on the anniversary of an event that was traumatic for our nation, it is good to take a moment to recognize the effects it had on us individually and as a culture and to be aware of the impact such events can have on our lives. Anniversaries can be very hard for those touched by trauma and some of the following activities may be helpful during such times:

• Writing down thoughts in a journal or blog

• Sharing memories

• Spending time with loved ones

• Connecting with spiritual or religious organizations

• Beginning the process of healing old wounds with the help of a professional

Dr. Jessica Bloomfield is a psychologist at Southeast Psych who specializes in treating trauma, as well as depression, anxiety, and a range of other issues.


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