What Is Trauma?
Trauma is a much misused word; it actually emanates from the Ancient Greek term meaning an injury causing penetration of the body’s defences, such as skin. In psychological terms, I rely on the very simple definition provided by Sigmund Freud, “A Trauma is an Event of such Emotional Intensity that it breaks through the Body’s normal Defences and floods it with an Uncontrollable Anxiety”. Therefore, those who have survived a trauma will experience a natural phase of emotional distress as the brain concentrates on healing itself.
How can we help?
Well, for a start, we need to appreciate that this state of “uncontrollable anxiety” is actually an absolutely normal human reaction to an abnormal event, such as a terrorist incident or the Grenfell Tower fire. This reaction is characterized by sleeping difficulties, irritability and outbursts of anger, difficulty in concentrating, hyper-vigilance, feelings of detachment from relatives and close friends, less interest in normal activities, nightmares and flashbacks.
I say again, any of these feelings would at an early stage be entirely expected. But people need reassuring that this is normal and that they are not “loosing their minds” or developing a long-standing psychological disorder. These symptoms will usually become less intrusive over the 6-8 weeks following the traumatic event. Only in a few cases, typically about 4-6%, will the symptoms persist and people need clinical intervention to treat the symptoms leading to psychological illnesses, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Depression.
Safe Healing Environments
There is a huge amount of evidence that the most effective form of psychological support that can be offered in the short and medium-term aftermath of a disaster is the provision of a safe and confidential environment. Within this space survivors can, in their own time (and we are all different), express their real emotions to another human being who understands how they are feeling and can confidently provide the positive reassurance that their feelings are, as mentioned earlier, an entirely normal reaction to an abnormal (traumatic) event.
(Of all denominations) are well-placed to provide these havens of reassurance; not only are they recognized as safe settings by overt believers and non-believers alike, but faith is also embedded deep in most peoples’ minds, and faith inspires positivity and hope. So, by being that beacon for those in darkness or hopelessness, religious organisations really can help survivors come to terms with their experiences and ease their brain’s acceptance of survival and a return to a new, but stable, sense of normality. It may seem strange, even cold, to predict at this stage that this new level of normality will reappear but for over 90% of those involved it will. It is helpful to know, in a culture that increasingly values counselling intervetions, that our minds can often heal on their own.
Dr Richard Castle...is a Chartered Psychologist specializing in the aftermath of Trauma. He spent the majority of his professional career in the Royal Air Force and he is now involved in several foundations promoting mental wellbeing and pscyho-social rehabilitation, predominantly in the UK and Bangladesh. Richard was also severely burned in the 1999 Ladbroke Grove Rail Crash.