How to cope with trauma after a harrowing event

A guide to understanding and healing.
what is trauma?

Content warning: This article touches on sensitive topics which may be triggering for some readers.

As with any major and confronting event like the tragic massacre that took place in Bondi over the weekend, whether you witnessed it first-hand or through social media, harrowing incidents like these can be extremely confronting and traumatic for our mental health.

It’s important to understand what is trauma and learn the coping mechanisms to help begin the healing process.

What is trauma?

At its core, trauma is what we call the emotional and physical response to a frightening or distressing event. 

“Trauma is physiological first,” explains trauma expert, Natalia Rachel. “It lives in the body and it lives in the nervous system, and essentially, our nervous system carries this sense of threat and danger, even when that danger is over.”

Over time, trauma can begin to manifest both in psychological and physical ways such as having nightmares, flashbacks, headaches or increased heart rate.

How to cope with trauma in the direct aftermath

Whilst trauma can appear in the weeks and months following a confronting situation, Natalia says that you can begin the healing process in the direct aftermath.

“The very first thing we can do to help ourselves is to let our bodies know that the danger has passed and we are safe here and now in the present.

“We’re giving the body feedback to try and switch off the survival response and that’s how we can come out of the state of trauma.” 

Natalia says that in the days after a frightening experience, it’s particularly important to stay connected and express your feelings.

“When we’re going through these really difficult, scary experiences, it’s easy to feel alone and to try and stuff those feelings down but actually that’s how we ended up holding the trauma.”

“Healing is a relational and social process, so if we can lean into our safe relationships we will be less likely to experience trauma and all of the symptoms that come with it.”

What about vicarious trauma?

In the ever-connected digital world, disastrous events are no longer confined to those who directly witnessed it. Now, anyone, anywhere can be subjected to horrific videos, images and other confronting media online too.

Natalia says that whether we were physically present for a harrowing event or not, it can still be a huge shock to our collective system and have adverse reactions.

“Absolutely possible to feel affected or traumatised, whatever level or dimension away from the event we are.

“Trauma is not what happened to you or the event itself, it’s the way that we’re altered.”

How can I support someone who has witnessed something traumatic?

Conversely, if someone you know has witnessed something traumatic, it’s important to be there for that person and let them lean on you while they process their emotions

“Validate, validate, validate,” Natalia stresses. “Check in on people and let them know that you’re there and offer them a safe space of listening.”

“It’s important to remember that we can’t make somebody feel better and we can’t get them to that other side of healing, but we can show up as a safe other and just offer our compassionate presence.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website.

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