When Sara’s family had to evacuate her house during a hurricane, they were all equally scared—they could have lost everything they owned, or even been killed. Luckily, her whole family survived, but a tree fell through the roof of Sara’s bedroom, right where she would have been sleeping if they had stayed. Months later, it seems like everyone has gotten over the hurricane…except Sara. She still panics every time it drizzles, has nightmares about storms, and can’t concentrate in school. Sara has experienced a traumatic event, and she’s struggling to overcome the feelings it has caused.
What is trauma?
A “trauma” or “traumatic event” is something you either experience or witness that is extremely upsetting, frightening, or difficult. There are two types of traumatic events: chronic and acute.
Acute traumatic events
-These types of events usually only happen once and over a short period of time
-These experiences bring back feelings of terror, horror, or helplessness
Examples of acute traumatic events:
-Natural disasters (like a hurricane, tornado, or flood)
-Serious accidents (like a car crash)
-Sudden loss of a loved one
-Physical or sexual assault (being mugged or attacked)
Chronic traumatic situations
-This type of trauma can happen repeatedly and over time
-Experiencing chronic trauma can cause victims to feel guilt, shame, fear, loss of trust, and lack of safety
Examples of chronic traumatic situations:
-Multiple incidents of physical abuse
-Multiple incidents of sexual abuse
-Domestic violence (violence in your home)
-Wars or political violence
What are the signs and symptoms of trauma?
When someone has experienced trauma — and it continues to cause them intense stress for more than a month — they may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). You may have heard of PTSD, particularly when people talk about soldiers coming back from war. The truth is, people who have fought in wars aren’t the only ones who can experience PTSD — it can be anyone who has witnessed or been involved in a potentially traumatic event, from being displaced from their home due to a natural disaster or war, to being in a car crash where they broke their ankle.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD:
-Reliving or re-experiencing the traumatic event(s)
-Having nightmares, intrusive memories, flashbacks, or frequent or unexpected mental images of the event
-Avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma
-Staying away from the people, places, or things that are in any way related to the event
-Not being willing to talk about the trauma, even to a professional or a loved one
-Negative thoughts and moods
-Feeling unwarranted blame toward yourself or others
-Feeling distanced or estranged from others
-Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
-Losing the ability to remember events well, especially key aspects of the traumatic event
-Acting out, such as aggressive, reckless, or self-destructive behavior
How can you treat PTSD?
Even though talking or thinking about the traumatic event(s) can be stressful or even painful, PTSD is usually not cleared up on its own. Therapy can be an effective treatment for dealing with the anxiety and stress of a trauma. One of the most common therapies is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is used to help change the way you react or respond to unhelpful thoughts of behaviors. There are several things you may learn or tactics that may be used in CBT, such as:
-Stress management skills to help you cope with unpleasant feelings or memories associated with trauma
-“Exposure therapy” asks that you talk about the trauma or your feelings in a safe space
-Creating a narrative of what happened — so that you can tell the story of the trauma and take ownership of the feelings it causes
-Correcting untrue or incorrect thoughts about the trauma, often of guilt or blame. Almost always, there is nothing you could have done to change the outcome of the event, and relieving yourself of blame goes a long way toward treating PTSD.
-Involving your parents or other adults you trust
Trauma is difficult to overcome, and even more difficult if you are alone or without a role model you can trust. Getting your parents or another adult involved in your therapy can help the healing process move along with more stability.
See our “Trauma: How to Help” page for more information on how to help yourself or a friend after experiencing a traumatic event.
Jews and Trauma
All it takes is a quick scan of Jewish history to realize that Jews—both as individuals and as a community—have undergone a wide array of traumas over the years. The Holocaust is arguably the most traumatic event in our history, and as its survivors age, many who managed to suppress trauma earlier in their lives, find themselves suffering from PTSD. Recent research indicates that Holocaust trauma may even have a genetic component in which survivors pass down their trauma to their children and grandchildren.
In addition, Israel’s numerous experiences with terrorism and war have left a mark on many of its citizens. The one silver lining of this is that Israelis have become world experts in treating trauma and the Jewish state often sends post-trauma experts to countries dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters, epidemics, terror attacks and other crises. For more information about one group that does this, called IsraAid, click here.
Special thanks to our experts:
Rochelle F. Hanson, Ph.D., Professor at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center (NCVC) and Director of the NCVC Family and Child Program
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Medical University of South Carolina
This post is part of the Here.Now. series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.