My trauma story
In June of 2014, my maternal aunt passed away. It was very sudden and traumatic. I still remember the call I got from mom and her words, verbatim, though spoken in Cantonese, “Ning has passed away.” It seemed very surreal, and I still remember I was in the kitchen, holding my phone, in shock.
What followed was an hour phone call with mom as she told the story and we wept together. Actually, I wasn't sure if it has been an hour because time took on a different dimension. My husband didn't know what to do. Though mom and I spoke in Cantonese, he was able to make out the content of what we were talking about. He just sat next to me and held me as I held the phone, and my mom.
My body's response to trauma
As mentioned in an earlier post, my body tends to hold stress and tension. In the days following, my body locked up and I felt very tensed. I went for my one and only massage with a gift certificate I have received years ago. It provided temporary relief. I went through waves of normal work and home life, followed by strong emotions and uncontrollable sobbing when a co-worker asked me how I was doing.
I stayed up in the middle of the night, recounting what happened, hearing my mom's voice, remembering the last encounter with my aunt. I was more sensitive to others' stories about the death of their loved ones, however they might have passed. I had a strong desire for people to stay alive. Above it all, I was angry that the sun was still shining, that life kept going for the rest of the world.
I know I needed to let go of this pain, this hurt and I finally went on a very long bike ride on my day off. I wasn't in bike-shape, but that didn't matter. It was also one of the hotter days in Seattle; 88-degrees outside. While I filled up on water at every juncture, I was still low at the end of the day. However, nothing compared to the flying feeling I experienced while on petals. It was as if the breeze took with it my burden, my tension, and leaving with me memories of my aunt. That was just the beginning of my healing process.
The truth is, one in two people will experience trauma in their lifetime. That's 50%. And with the never-ending breaking news, I can only imagine that statistic going up.
Trauma is an emotional response to stressful and dangerous events that happened to you or other people. Examples of traumatic events include:
- living through natural disasters
- experiencing serious accident or injury
- being a victim of crime, violence or abuse
- witnessing someone else as a victim of crime, violence or abuse
- going through a scary medical procedure
- someone close to you dying suddenly
Trauma symptoms are best described in four clusters:
Re-experiencing: as you go about your day, you might experience intrusive thoughts about what happened. These thoughts take you back to the event as if you're re-living it. At night, you might dream about what happened. Sometimes you can pinpoint what triggered these memories; other times they come out of no where. You're likely to experience these symptoms at night, and when you're relax and less occupied.
Arousal: memories of the trauma often bring strong emotions and physical sensations. Examples of arousal symptoms include trouble falling or staying asleep, anger and irritability, and difficulty concentrating. You might also have feelings of being on guard, like you're constantly watching over your shoulder, and being easily startled.
Unhelpful mood and cognitions: as a result of the traumatic event, you might experience a lot of shame and guilt and blame yourself or others for what has happened. You might report feeling sad or hopeless, becoming less engaged in life and feeling cut-off from the rest of the world. It is also possible for you to have trouble remembering key aspects of what happened.
Avoidance: because memories of the trauma are so hard to bear, there's a tendency to push away any thoughts, places, activities, people, facts or associations related to the trauma. You might avoid media content that reminds you of the event. You might actively try to avoid thinking about the trauma or feeling your feelings about what happened. Sometimes, avoidance strategies include the use of drugs and alcohol, staying busy, being promiscuous, or making other choices that provide temporal relief.
Diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
While most traumatic symptoms surface within three months of the event, sometimes they remain dormant for a long time. It is normal to experience these stress reactions following a traumatic event and for some of us, these symptoms naturally dissipate. For others, these symptoms linger for at least a month and can affect home, work and social life. If that's you, it is important to meet with a mental health professional to determine whether you meet criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Hope for trauma survivors
The initial symptoms I experienced following the death of my aunt were a normal trauma response. While I recovered naturally, I know that many people who have experienced trauma have not, and I want to help. If that's you, there is hope. PTSD is treatable. Trauma treatment is hard work but the results are evident and sustained overtime. In my next posts, I'll talk about the different ways of treating PTSD: Cognitive Behavioral approaches and mind-body integration.
In the meantime, let me know if you need help.
Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She helps distressed couples and breast cancer patients. She has also seen a lot of improvement in her work with trauma clients. Since that initial massage, she has had many more massages. She realizes that when she is stressed and tensed, it feels good to be touched and cared for. She hopes you'll also find ways to care for you.