I am an alumnus of Stoneman Douglas High School and am highly trained in the field of trauma and PTSD. As we approach the 1 year anniversary of this inconceivable event, I want to share as much information as I can to help a community that I am deeply connected to prepare emotionally over the next several weeks. I’ve compiled the most frequently asked topics from parents and teenagers I’ve worked with to create this four part Trauma Series. I hope this information is helpful as we enter this next phase of recovery. If you are just joining in and want to follow the series, you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
You might think of traditional grief or bereavement when you hear the phrase “New Normal” but I think it applies incredibly well to the transition after a trauma whether loss of life was experienced or not. As we explored in the trauma exposure part of this series, we aren’t taught to expect bad things to happen. We know pain and loss exists but the magnitude and severity is largely unknown until we’re walking right through it. Since we can’t undo or un-see what we’ve experienced our lives are never the same.
You feel different because you are different
I find many people end up in my office looking for help because they don’t feel like themselves. They feel off, they feel different and that creates discomfort. I try so hard to normalize this experience because all that discomfort symbolizes is change. And when it comes to traumatic experiences, change has indeed taken place. The problem is that this change was unexpected. When something expected happens, like learning a new sport or going off to college, we feel uncomfortable but we do it anyway because of the expectation that we will have grown from it. These skills and experiences change us and it’s impossible to be the person we were before we mastered those skills or obtained that diploma. When the change is unexpected and unwanted we want to fight it or find some way to undo it. But the truth of it is we can’t. There is no going back. Your life is different. You are different and we are permanently changed.
Consider changing your recovery goals
One of the most common goal requests I get when treatment planning is “I want to be like I was before”. What I think most people are asking here is to help them not get rid of what happened (because it’s been accepted as truth) but to get rid of the feelings, the reactions, the responses to what happened and I can absolutely empathize with that. Recovering from a major traumatic event is incredibly stressful, uncomfortable and disruptive. No one wants to feel that way for any length of time, but the good news is with treatment, you don’t have to. We don’t do this by getting rid of what we are feeling (that would be a cure and it doesn’t exist….yet), we do this by learning how to cope with what we are feeling. Learning how to manage difficult emotions makes it easier to do your work, build relationships and improve your overall quality of life. You’ll be much more successful to focus on quality of life than if you stay committed to “being like I was before”
People won’t see life as you’ve seen it and that can be lonely
The exposure to a trauma changes the way we see our world. Places that used to be safe don’t seem so safe anymore. People we used to trust no longer seem trustworthy. This lens shapes not only our emotions but how we navigate the world around us. Your behavior might change as a result of this shift in perception. Maybe going out to dinner with friends is a lot more overwhelming now than it was before, so invitation after invitation gets declined. Perhaps it becomes annoying to listen to mundane chit chat or small talk within social circles so you start to avoid them. The isolation feels good in the short term but over time you start to notice the impact it has on your relationships or even day to day tasks like going to the grocery store.
A more unique, less talked about way to feel isolation is the loneliness of comparison. As we listen to other people’s stories on what they experience and we learn more about what happened, some people start to feel that their experience pales in comparison to others. They start to think “I have no right to feel this way because my experience wasn’t as bad as that person’s experience”. Some people even start experiencing guilt over what they are going through. Being on the outside of the “worst” part of a trauma but being close enough to not be affected by it leaves those individuals feeling like outliers. They may not feel like they fit anywhere and so the isolation sets in.
Trauma isn’t a competition. It’s not about who experienced it “the worst”. Not matter how close or how far you are from a trauma your feelings and experiences are valid but most importantly, It doesn’t take away from what others are experiencing. There is enough room for everyone to grieve and recover in their own way.
Recovery comes in waves and the journey is rarely direct
The timeline of recovery varies and is dependent on the person’s natural abilities to cope, supports, previous exposure to trauma and pre-existing conditions such as a few examples. Some people seek treatment immediately. Some people want to process what happened and see if their natural response to coping will be enough. Both of these strategies are OK. It may take several months before you can really understand how a traumatic experience has changed you. It’s never too late to seek treatment. Consider how much the symptoms are interfering with your life as opposed to the symptoms themselves. If you aren’t living the quality of life you want, then it’s OK to explore your options for treatment.
There are many interventions that are suitable for trauma exposure. The major trauma focused evidence-based treatments are Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). If you aren’t comfortable doing a trauma focused treatment and prefer to manage emotions and behaviors without talking about the trauma, you have options there to. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) are all well researched and safe options. Of course, medication management can me an option on its own but an overwhelming majority of studies s how that medications are most effective when paired with some type of psychotherapy.
Although the outcome of all of these interventions are basically the same, you might find one of these interventions work better for you than the others. If you are seeing a therapist ask them about your options. A good therapist will discuss the different type of interventions available to you and help you decide together what the best fit might be. You might start one intervention, see no improvement then decide to try another. You might have to switch therapist a couple of time because we aren’t one size fits all either. The point is not to give up. You need to be an active participant in your recovery plan and keep moving until you find the right intervention for you. It will be well worth the effort.
In the fourth and final part of the series we will discuss trauma anniversaries and how to cope with them. Stay tuned.
Some people naturally recover from traumatic experiences but some people need help learning how to recover. If it’s been over a month and your symptoms have not improved or are getting worse, you can contact a mental health professional in your area to get an evaluation and learn some ways to cope with your symptoms. I offer in office sessions in Coral Springs Florida as well as Telehealth sessions throughout the State of Florida. You can contact my office to set up an appointment by filling out this form here.
If you are in immediate crisis and need to speak to someone right away, you can call the National Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or you can text HOME to 741741 to text (for free) with a trained crisis counselor.