TRAUMA: Have We Forgotten to Prepare for That?

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By Sandra Lane

It was a cold overcast afternoon when the police car rounded the corner. I was 4 years old, and on my brand new bicycle with training wheels. My mom was like that; very punctual. Everything had to be accomplished by a certain time. Walking, broken from the bottle, and out of diapers by one year of age. I guess it was a thing back then.

I remember that despite the clouds and temperature I wasn’t cold, but instead very excited to ride a bike, and very scared. Our duplex was on a hill, and so our driveway sloped downward. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to stop my bike and would roll out into the street in front of a car. And I remember looking down our side street towards North Broadway; an extremely busy main street, especially at that time of the morning. I was by myself, and then I wasn’t. There was a police car pulling into our driveway.

The very next thing I remember was someone screaming. I was in the back of the police car with a grate between me and the men in the front, and there was a woman banging on the passenger side back window, yelling for me to unlock the door. I looked and looked but there was no lock. I couldn’t find a handle. I couldn’t open the door. The woman’s cheeks were covered with tears and wisps of wet hair; her fists continually banging on the glass. “Sandy, honey, open the door. Unlock the door for me baby.” It was then I realized that she wasn’t the one screaming – I was.” (1)

After a disaster, mental trauma is very possible and can be debilitating.

We plan for many different disasters, many different events, but what do we do after? After the earth stops rumbling, after the tornado disappears into the clouds, after the blizzard subsides, after the notice that we’ve been laid off, after the police have taken the burglary report and left, after the dust settles? Then what?

Some people say that’s when we get up and brush ourselves off, then move on with our lives. Maybe. If you just lost your balance and tripped. Maybe. Maybe even if you take a fall and fracture something. But when the world you know crumbles beneath your feet, when your very life is changed, especially if it’s not of your doing, it’s a little bit tougher than just moving on.

I hadn’t dusted the right way. I thought I had, but with a dry dust cloth, and so many cats, all the ‘dust’ just seemed to fall back on the furniture. It wasn’t the cats fault but I knew what was coming and my heart beat fast as I sat on my bedroom floor. Sitting on the bed wasn’t allowed and there was no other place to sit. Then I swallowed hard as I heard footsteps down the hallway. It was time, and I stood up. My step mother came in first and walked over to me. I flinched as she hissed in my ear, “You’re a child only a mother could love, and even she didn’t want you!”. I remember thinking ‘just please don’t pinch me like before’. She liked to pinch my arm a lot while she was whispering loudly in my ear. My dad came in as she pulled away and I routinely moved over to the bed and bent over. “Uh uh.” He said with a cold look. “Pants down.” Then the tears started – it was such a shameful feeling to be half naked at 13, and so vulnerable. “I want you to know you brought this on yourself.” My dad spoke, and then the belt whistled in the air. He didn’t stop until I needed bandages.” (1)

In an SHTF situation, even a minor one that isn’t in effect for longer than a few days, shock is a very real and debilitating possibility. Not just physical shock, but emotional and/or psychological shock. Many of us are familiar with the symptoms of physical shock, and they are readily available easy to learn about and understand. Not so, psychological shock.

People react to traumatic events in various ways.

Used interchangeably, emotional/psychological shock happens when we experience a trauma that we’re unable to cope with. In laymen’s terms, something just happened to us and all we can do is stand there and stare. Or maybe all we do is run around screaming inaudible words and phrases. Or maybe we move to a quiet corner and weep. Or maybe we do all of the above. Our hearts may race, our dinner may come back up, anger and rage might swell, we might shake uncontrollably, cry uncontrollably, and we might break out into a sweat. That makes this trauma physiological as well with both emotional and physical symptoms. These symptoms and more can continue for long periods of time or last just a few minutes. It all depends on many factors, one of which is the person’s ability to process the trauma experienced. This says nothing of the victim’s abilities though, but more about the trauma.

It’s important to remember too that the severity of all trauma is subjective, meaning unique and self-measured, and therefore different for everyone. And, as I have experienced myself, it can also be different for each event. When my cat died I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t stop crying, and I could barely stand. When my dad died, I was just numb for a long time and didn’t speak a whole lot about it. You might have a car wreck and do little more than crawl out cursing and yelling at the other driver, while I might have the same car wreck and remain in the driver’s seat staring into nothing. I might learn that my son has a mental illness and be able to move forward and get him the help he needs while another person might be so overwhelmed they push their diagnosed son away, unable to comprehend it. Psychological shock is, as I said, unique and therefore different for everyone. That means this trauma is defined by the one who experiences it.

It is the subjective experience of the objective events that constitutes the trauma…The more you believe you are endangered, the more traumatized you will be…Psychologically, the bottom line of trauma is overwhelming emotion and a feeling of utter helplessness. There may or may not be bodily injury, but psychological trauma is coupled with physiological upheaval that plays a leading role in the long-range effects.” –Coping with Trauma: A Guide to Self-Understanding (1995), pg. 14, by Jon Allen

Mentally preparing for the psychological aftermath of trauma is tricky.

Knowing that, is there a way we can prepare ourselves for traumatic events before they happen? Kind of, in a way, yes. But also, no. In order to stave off feelings of helplessness, confusion, fear, and other emotions that might make us feel threatened and therefore traumatized, we can study and research as many events as possible, learn what to do and how to react, and when. However, the events that could potentially affect us are almost innumerable and there is literally no way to prepare for all of them. It would be like trying as hard as you can to do everything possible so that you live a long and healthy life, then getting cancer despite it. But, by doing everything you could to prevent it you may have created an environment that ends up beating the cancer.

We can certainly, and should most definitely, attempt to avoid (and prevent) traumatic, and possibly disastrous, events. The simple ones are have your keys out long before you reach your locked car, park under a lamppost, don’t go down dark streets alone (actually – don’t go down any street alone anymore), don’t hitchhike, don’t look down the barrel of your .38 to see if it’s loaded, keep your hands on the wheel if the police pull you over, lock your doors at night, etc. If you can legally and safely control it, then by all means do.

Okay, let’s take it up a notch. You go out to mow your yard. Let’s say you have a riding mower, and you know the damage those blades can do even if the deck and every part of it is in good working order. You know you shouldn’t mow above a certain degree angle/grade because it isn’t safe, but you’ve mowed this yard for 15 years with no trouble at all, know better than to wear shorts and no shoes, so you’re completely confident that everything will be fine as you start your mower in a pair of jeans and work boots. Except you’re out in the back doing the final ½ acre and start to experience chest pain. You’ve never had it before, have no medication, don’t carry aspirin, and your phone is in the house. As you can see, we simply can’t prepare for everything, and trying to do so would likely cause more trauma than a typical traumatic event.

Now let’s go sideways for a minute. You’re canning green beans fresh from the garden. Pressure canners can be dangerous, and you know it.  So you’ve decided to take all the steps possible to prevent anything from going wrong, so much so that you’ve even gotten to the point that you can your veggies outside. Not only does it save money by not heating up the kitchen, but if the thing does blow up, (not likely in this day and age but you’re not taking any chances), hopefully, the only thing it’ll take out is the wooden wall you’ve set your outdoor kitchen up against and maybe a stray bird flying overhead.  But for now, this batch is done, the pressure has been released, and you’ve unlocked and lifted the lid to reveal glorious quart jars of bubbling and nutritious green beans. With a potholder and jar lifter, you pull a jar out just as your 6-year-old son misses the baseball. He turns in time to see the ball hit your wrist and is by your side in time for the jar, it’s contents still boiling, to hit the bare edge of a small rock in the ground. The jar shatters and sprays your son with glass and boiling liquid. His legs and arm are splattered with 3rd-degree burns and blood. Again, we cannot think of, prepare for, or prevent everything. So what do we do?

Learning about psychological shock should be part of your preparedness plan.

Psychology Today gives some ways of coping with psychological shock, with one of the first things being to give yourself a few minutes to let the event register in your mind. Many people tend to immediately react to a situation without thinking at all, which in and of itself, is completely natural, just not always totally helpful. It’s part of the ‘Fight or Flight’ response that we all have within us. Reacting with a call to 911 and first aid is one thing, and the right thing, but learning to stay calm is easier said than done during a trauma.

In “Fight or Flight”, also called hyperarousal or an ‘acute stress response’, there is very little thought at all to our actions but rather a state that’s been triggered by the release of hormones preparing our body to either confront the threat or run to safety. Both actions can be right; both could be wrong. It truly depends on the thinking we manage to do in those few seconds to minutes before we act.

In this hyper-aroused state, the hormones that our body releases are for our own good.

The heartbeat and respiration may be faster in order to increase oxygen and energy to the body. As the response continues, blood flow to the surface areas of the body may be reduced, and flow to the muscles and brain are increased. This can cause pale skin or alternating flushed skin depending on the area of the body and our clotting ability increases in order to prevent excess blood loss in case we sustain an injury. Our pupils might also enlarge, allowing more light in and giving us the chance to see better and be more aware of our surroundings, and our muscles may tense up in preparation to either strike or run. This can cause trembling. (source)

While every bit of that is natural and imperative to our survival, it’s what we do next that can help define the outcome of the traumatic event.

Everything that I wrote in the last two paragraphs happens in mere seconds in real life. This is why it’s important that along with storing food, gear, books, along with preparing for disasters large and small, along with increasing our knowledge and honing our survival skills, we need to work on preserving our mental health. We won’t be able to prepare for everything, as I said earlier, but we can prepare for what we’ve seen and heard. Emotional Trauma and Shock, and the problems that can develop afterward.

Constant exposure to stories of traumatic events can harm mental health.

Mass shootings, trafficked people, abused kids, beaten spouses – it’s all heartbreaking, it turns my stomach, and it’s everywhere. Just reading those stories, just hearing about them, can actually trigger trauma and subsequent shock for some people. When it happens in our own city it starts to get closer and we’re affected by it more. Discomfort truly begins to set in when it occurs in our place of employment, our neighborhoods or down the street.

An employee at an automobile seat factory in Alabama is charged with murder after a co-worker was shot to death on the assembly line. Both women worked at Lear Corp. in Tuscaloosa County. The factory makes seats for the Mercedes-Benz plant west of Birmingham. Sheriff’s Lt. Jack Kennedy says Smith was working on the line when she was shot to death Sunday night. He says Mayo left the factory after the shooting but later surrendered to police. (source)

My husband picks up and delivers to that Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama daily, which is across the street from the Lear Corp. He is fine, he says, and not injured in the slightest. I’m a little rattled, but it’s completely ‘normal’ to feel that way. The closer it gets to us, especially if it happens directly to someone you love, or to yourself, you can almost surely expect some level of psychological shock.

It’s almost a given, now that we’ve had decades of study on the topic, that repeated exposure to traumatic events can and does lead to desensitization. One might consider preparing for future problems by ‘toughening up’ so to speak with repeated exposure to small controlled traumas, but desensitization can leave a person calloused and without compassion; not exactly a goal to set our sights on. If you’ve ever met a health care worker who, through no fault of their own, have developed compassion fatigue, you’ll understand that our goal shouldn’t be to feel numb or uncaring, but to be prepared and strong – both physically and mentally. Therefore, we need to learn how to deal with psychological trauma.

Here are some tips on how to cope after a traumatic experience.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find a whole lot on either the World Health Organization’s website or the National Institute of Mental Health, although both do offer symptoms and warning signs of what to expect after a traumatic experience and what to watch for.

I did, however, find some good information from The Royal College of Psychiatrists that deal with getting through the emotional onslaught that plays havoc with our minds after a traumatic event. Ironically, while it corresponds to events I’ve had to go through personally, much of it reminds me of the stages of grieving. According to the website, we should:

  1. Give ourselves time to accept what happened. Depending on the event this could be really difficult but is an important start. If at all possible, there should be no time constraints on how long this takes.
  2. Find out the truth. As we’re able and ready to, we should search out answers as to what happened. In that way we know, can face it better, and don’t have to wonder.
  3. Be in contact with other survivors of the trauma. The website points out that going to funerals or memorials of those who suffered the trauma can help because you’re spending time with people who have been through the same experience. Of course, if this is a much larger trauma event, we may be restricted to our families and friends. I need to point out here that if you are the only one who has suffered the trauma, it’s time to let someone else know. Healing simply can’t be completed without sharing it.
  4. Dealing with repeated trauma, of either the same type or a variety of different events, can desensitize, and we know that’s not good.  Talking to someone can do the opposite. We’re sharing the event, allowing someone else to empathize with us, receiving care and kindness, as well as slowly accepting what we’ve been through. (source)

From my own experience, I want to say don’t let yourself feel pressured. Everything takes time. It took me 35 years to realize the world wasn’t as my dad said it was, 40 years to realize he wasn’t god, and I still don’t believe I’m someone that should be loved. It all takes time.

In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with a link to a Help Guide that is in .pdf format and easily printed out for future reference. (I didn’t write the guide I just thought it was very accurate, helpful, and easy to read.) So when the next disaster happens, respond the way you’ve trained yourself to, the way you’ve planned to, but afterward give yourself as much time as you can to process everything, to understand it, accept it, and learn from it. It might also take some courage, but just give it time. Don’t think too quick that just because the mass shooting took place in another state you aren’t allowed to be bothered by it. And don’t brush off the feelings of sorrow you might notice you have after hearing about the death of a child in a hot car. Trauma is everywhere, and we all need to learn how to process and deal with it in our own time, in our own way.

“’I can’t.’ I stood there on one leg in the tub, a towel wrapped tightly around me, shivering. I was wet from the shower but I wasn’t cold – I was petrified. ‘I’m sorry’, my husband replied softly, ‘but you’re gonna have to.’ Tears welled up into my eye to the point that everything was blurred. Of course I was going to have to, but I just couldn’t. My foot was completely worthless after the Achilles Tendon surgery, I wasn’t able to put weight on it anyway, and now I had to step out of the tub. Which meant I either had to stand on the foot, or step on the foot. I couldn’t do either by myself. ‘Do you trust me.’ It was more of a statement than a question and I wiped the tears away and looked up at him. My husband knew me well, and he knew I didn’t trust anyone. I never could. He opened his arms and moved towards me, and the tears started to pour again. ‘I can’t!’ I sobbed and started shaking. ‘Trust me Sandy.’ My husband picked me up over the side of the tub and I clung to him like breath itself. I don’t remember anything else until I was standing once more on the floor in the living room, still clinging to him and sobbing. Only this time I was sobbing in relief. I had trusted him and he hadn’t failed me.” (1)

Passages notated with (1) are excerpts from “My Story” by Sandra D. Lane – Not Yet Published

About Sandra

Sandra is a published artist, photographer, fellow prepper, and animal advocate.

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