The journey to recovery- Invisible Hero’s *
* ( The term :Invisible Heroes, came from the book ‘Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal – BELLERUTH NAPARSTEK)
We recognize a hero as being someone who does something brave and courageous. For example a fireman who dashes into a fire to save a child, or a police officer who even under fire fights back, or even a member of the community who dives into a lake to save someone from drowning. But we never conceive that a survivor of violence or abuse could be a hero. Consider the victim of a smash and grab or hijacking who stands in the queue at the pick ‘n pay or department home affairs to fetch her ID book. Or the victim of a hostage situation who goes to the PTA meeting although her heart is pounding, her mouth is dry; her hands sweating, or the survivor of abuse at the hands of a parent who now has to go and speak to his boss. Perhaps we could call these people invisible heroes: survivors who struggle to make sense of the trauma they have faced, who struggles to understand the symptoms and reactions to the invisible triggers around them. Physiological reactions, emotional reactions and even psychological reactions to smell, sight, sound and touch around them.
Understanding these reactions is half the battle. Understanding how our body works and reacts to senses and trauma assists us in managing these reactions and enables us to move forward and to move on with our lives.
When we experience a traumatic event, our body reacts in a certain manner. When we are faced with danger, for example and to put it simply our body releases certain quick charging chemicals that enable us to face this danger, such as adrenaline. This is known as the fight or flight response, a process whereby as adrenaline is released in our body in response to this danger. A person may respond by fighting back or fleeing the danger or may even freeze. Internally, as our body responds our sense become more sensitive to our environment, our heart rate increases pumping more blood to important muscle groups, pumping blood and oxygen to our brains to process incoming information faster. Our lungs expand, our breathing becomes faster, glucose is converted into energy and so we respond.
Of course, after the danger has passed, and our body no longer has to produce adrenaline in response, we may be left feeling exhausted and fatigued. A sort of sugar low. And those of you who have experienced a sugar low know how that may feel…. Nausea, shivering (blood has been moved to other parts of the body away from skin- remember blood is warm.) so before you even start processing what has happened emotionally, you may not feel ok, and this is just because of the physiological reaction. This phase is known as the impact phase.
Following this phase, is the recoil phase. A period where our bodies in response to such overwhelming stimuli try to make sense of the different sense, emotions and physiological and psychological processes going on behind the scenes.
These could be placed into three different groupings or clusters: avoidant symptoms, intrusive or re-experiencing symptoms and hyper arousal.
Let’s talk about hyper arousal first. It is important to note that adrenaline remains in our system up to four weeks after an event. So our levels of arousal and adrenaline are slightly higher than normal and this may lead to normal responses such as sleeplessness or difficulty falling asleep, irritability, increased anger or aggression, difficulty concentrating and jumpiness, or as the psychologists like to call it: exaggerated startle response ( jumping at slight noises) and even hyper vigilance- always looking out the window or muting the TV because you thought you heard something.
The second group of symptoms is known as intrusive or re-experiencing symptoms, a group of symptoms where we remember parts of the event without wanting to. Nightmares, or flashbacks, unwanted images, and then physical and psychological reactions or distress to emotional or cognitive or sensory reminders. Such as remembering an aspect of the incident and then your heart starts pounding in fear, as if you are reliving the event again.
The third group of symptoms is simply put, a response to the intrusive reminders: we try to avoid them because it is not nice to remember! Avoiding talking about the event, avoiding people or places or activities that remind us of the trauma. Sometimes a person may even forget aspects of the trauma.
What one needs to remembers with all these symptoms is that where they take place within the first four or five weeks after the event, they are recognised as normal healthy responses to a trauma: post-traumatic stress response. It is only thereafter, say about six weeks and where the symptoms continue for about six months that someone may have PTSD.
It is important therefore to recognize that although you may need assistance or counselling , within four weeks of the event, you do not have a disorder but it is your body recalibrating in response to the trauma event. If the symptoms do continue, please seek help from a qualified mental health professional: but seek help.
Go on, BE A HERO AND TALK to someone* if you are struggling with trauma symptoms!
* Speak to a trained therapist, counsellor or psychologist who specialises in traumatic stress.