By Randy Brazzel MA, LPC, LMFT
Unfortunately, traumatic experiences are a relatively common event. Current estimates are that as many as 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes. Given the number of veterans who have experienced combat, the frequency and intensity of recent natural disasters, and the tragedies associated with the recent events in Boston and Newtown, these numbers are not surprising.
While anyone can experience trauma, not all people perceive traumatic events in the same way. Some are able to manage these events relatively well, while others experience significant distress as the result of traumatic events. It is currently estimated that as many as 20% of people that experience a traumatic event will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some estimates are even higher (between 30 and 60%) for those who have experienced a disaster, such as a hurricane, industrial accident, or a terror attack. In addition, between 5 to 20% of rescue workers of these events tend to experience PTSD within a year of the traumatic event.
Trauma and Memory
Trauma from an event is so stressful that it overwhelms our normal coping mechanisms. As a result, thoughts and feelings that occurred during the trauma can get anchored internally and cause us to think in distorted ways. For example, you might see a burning building and naturally think “I have to get everyone out of the building”. If, however, you are unsuccessful, the thought might become “people were hurt because I wasn’t able to get everyone out.” Clearly, you didn’t cause the building to burn, yet because of the overwhelming nature of the traumatic event, you might begin to feel guilty and responsible for the losses that occurred.
Research indicates that traumatic events tend to be encoded within the limbic system of the brain, which primarily processes emotions and sensations, rather than language or speech. As a result, people who experience trauma often don’t have the words to describe their experiences. Unfortunately, if they can’t put into words their experiences, it may lead to PTSD.
Therapy can be very effective in helping individuals’ overcome the effects of trauma in their lives. During therapy, individuals are able to work through the memories of the trauma and diminish the intensity of the emotions and thoughts that may have become “frozen in time.” Therapy often helps individuals find the words for their experiences. This allows them to engage the cognitive portions of the brain, which is generally responsible for language and reasoning. The more we can make sense of the trauma the more we are able to overcome its after-effects.