What to do after a traumatic event? Always reach out
Creating awareness around trauma is one of the most critical issues for overall mental health in our society. Psychological trauma has been a much-researched topic over the past three decades, and that's excellent. But as we need many more trauma-informed professionals, we also need a systemic change that includes general awareness about trauma and its impact on individuals, families, and society.
People must be aware of the importance of addressing traumatic events as quickly as possible.
There are two different categories of traumatic events. The first one is about prolonged trauma - when traumatic events are piling up one on another. The second one is about a single traumatic event.
I'm a prolonged trauma survivor, however, in this article, I will share a story about delayed trauma healing which speaks about the undesirable consequences that can come after a single traumatic event. In that case, I was not directly involved in a traumatic event, but I was impacted by it for sure. I'm sharing my lemons and I sincerely hope you can learn from my experience as much as possible.
This is a read about the loss of a close friend by suicide and my own trauma processing with the help of energy work, specifically the Emotional Freedom Technique.
I. Taking the risk: the London EFT workshop
I sat down on a narrow, hard chair. I wore warm boots, a thick wool dress, double sleeves, and a wool scarf, and still, I was freezing like crazy. Well, every city and every province has its cold, and I don't mind cold in general, but the insidious sharpness of the English wet cold always catches me somehow unprepared.
That early winter, I guess it was November, London's cold was in my bones. I was sitting in a group of fifteen or twenty people. We were in a large studio with high walls, huge windows, stage lights, cables, and a sound system hung from the ceiling. It was raining outside. Mariam sat beside me, holding my hand and waiting. We'd spoken for the first time a little over half an hour ago. There was a rehearsal in pairs, and we chose our partners. You don't know the people in workshops like these, so usually select the partner closest to you. In this case, it was Mariam. We agreed that I'd be the therapist in the first round of work and Mariam would be the client. In this exercise, we worked with a traumatic event as a part of training in EFT, the Emotional Freedom Technique.
Everyone calls EFT "tapping," but technically, it's actually "acupressure for emotions." It's a widely used, simple, and popular self-help technique which can be used creatively for treatments in psychotherapy too. It is especially useful form of non-invasive somatic trauma technique.
We started to work, and after 40 minutes, we switched roles. Now I was a client, and Mariam was a therapist. "What do you want to work on?" she asked. I got silent for a while. I felt the discomfort of the hard chair under my butt. I asked myself, "how do I feel Mariam's presence? Do I trust her? She's a stranger. Am I willing to risk sharing what I'd like to share?" She held my hand and waited attentively.
"Yes, I know what I want to work on," I answered.
In my gut, that "yes" felt good. I felt safe with a stranger. She asked, "You already know the title of the movie?" In EFT, the movie is "a movie technique" that helps us safely process past traumatic events. This technique reduces the likelihood of overwhelming bundles of energy, emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations associated with the trauma event, "leaking out" of the chaotic, often fragmented accumulation of memory traces that the trauma leaves in body-mind. This is especially important since working with trauma is about moving forward in very tiny steps. If there's one rule in trauma therapy, it's to move slowly and gradually; the process is a bit like titration in chemistry.
Working with trauma is about moving forward in incremental steps. Slow is quick, less is more.
II. Tapping trauma technique
With Mariam, we started to tap. I narrated a "movie," Mariam and I tapped, and it went well. I seemed to remember everything from that day years ago very clearly. I recalled where was I, who called me to tell me about my friend's death, what the caller said, how I responded.
Then, describing it, my body went into shivering. Not from the cold, though. I started to feel a tight chest, and a wave of sadness rose like groundwater from my heart while my legs were restless and shaking.
Mariam tapped for me on my body, and emotions came up, and I was full of thoughts and feelings that I didn't even know I still had inside me, that I still had at all. The shock of losing my friend to suicide was huge for me. We were not in good standing with my friend for a few months before she died. Our story was complicated and not easy. She was in a difficult personal situation, and I couldn't help her as much as I wanted; she was also reluctant to help. I was also in a vulnerable position, with two young children, and underwent a significant life change. Her death came as a shock; it was completely unexpected. With Mariam, we persistently tapped forward. The shivering of my body resulted from an energetic release throughout my physical, emotional, and mental body. We worked diligently. Every bit of memory that emotionally overwhelmed me, we tapped it away. My legs trembled, and I felt gentle waves of the compressed energy released. I'd kept it inside me all those years. My legs and arms felt like jello. So many emotions were pouring out of my core. All the pain.... We tapped, and I repeated,
"Even though it was too late to help her and there was nothing I could do, I deeply love and accept myself..." "Even though I couldn't say goodbye to her and it was too late to say goodbye, I deeply love and accept myself"... "Even though it's too late for everything and it's all over, I choose to love and respect myself...." "This pain..." "This sadness..." I was moving through waves of guilt, emptiness, and helplessness. I felt and released the energy of the shock that remained in my body; the pain from when I learned my friend was gone in the most tragic event, and would never be with me again, flowed through my body and then left it, shaking.
Tapping with Mariam on that cold winter day, in a room full of people, it was a chaotic, tumultuous, powerful micro-journey through a cascade of my feelings, images, and thoughts that I kept locked in my body and soul for years.
But it was such a liberating experience. The tapping worked as any tapping trauma technique should! It released me from deeply held emotional pain that had lain dormant for many years.
III. Loss by suicide? The sadness, the terror? The mystery.
I feel so very sorry for the people who commit suicide because I feel sorry for their suffering, the pain. At the same time, I feel angry because society hasn't found ways to reach them as they haven't seen or found ways to reach help. It is so important to get out of constricted feelings that eventually lead to suicide.
I think people choose the path of suicide once they have exhausted all other options to move forward in life. For some reason, they recognize death as a solution, however, I want to believe they only search for a cure for their pain. I've heard that people who attempt suicide are unaware that there exists a solution to every problem. I've heard that before people attempt suicide, an energetic force slowly builds up in the unconscious parts of the psyche and takes over their mind until it finally takes over the ego, and their consciousness and people become trapped in an illusion from which there seems to be no way out.
The consequences of suicide are devastating for survivors. Peter Hook, Joy Division's bassist, shared in a 2020 podcast interview about lead singer and lyricist Ian Curtis' suicide in 1980:
“The awful thing about suicide is, the person who commits suicide, their problems are over. And yet yours and everybody left behind—his family, his parents, everybody else, in every occasion—theirs is just beginning. And they last all your life.”
Dealing with a loss by suicide is daunting. Often an unimaginable amount of guilt remains with the bereaved. It's not uncommon that it takes decades to resolve some self-imposed excess responsibility and come to a place of gentle self-love and self-forgiveness.
Tim Ferris, writer and interviewer, who himself suffered suicidal depression, considers the far-reaching ripples of grief and sorrow that the act sets into motion:
"Killing yourself can spiritually kill other people. Your death is not perfectly isolated. It can destroy a lot, whether your family (who will blame themselves), other loved ones or simply the law enforcement officers or coroners who have to haul your death mask-wearing carcass out of an apartment or the woods. The guaranteed outcome of suicide is NOT things improving for you (or going blank), but creating a catastrophe for others…
A friend once told me that killing yourself is like taking your pain, multiplying it by 10, and giving it to the ones who love you. I agree with this, but there’s more to it. Beyond any loved ones, you could include neighbors, innocent bystanders exposed to your death, and people — often kids — who commit “copycat suicides” when they read about your demise. This is the reality, not the cure-all fantasy, of suicide."
IV. A post-traumatic consciousness? Grief and grieving
Grieving after the loss of a loved one, whether expected or unexpected, is extremely exhausting. Grief is the universal human experience, probably the densest, most confusing, and most profound. But grief, after things happen unexpectedly, is extra demanding. Suicide is an unexpected, tragic loss as death by accident, a brief terminal illness, a murder. There's little chance that the survivors - the people who were close to the deceased - won't undergo some trauma after such an unexpected event.
The closer someone was to you, and the more conflicted your feelings toward them, and the more dependent the relationship - the more intensely you will respond to trauma of the unexpected loss.
Any grief process goes through commonly known stages, albeit not in that exact order:
formation of meaning.
All of these become even more challenging when processing unexpected losses. The shock that occurs when people receive unexpected news triggers hundreds of chemical reactions in their bodies. They are flooded with a cocktail of adrenaline, cortisol, and oxytocin. Later, in the hours, days, and weeks to come, people experience a mixture of exhaustion, crying, waves of sadness, mental confusion, anxiety, restless agitation and agitation of the body (startle), numbness and dissociation, often an inability to reach out and talk to others about what's going on inside them.
The sense of time and space change dramatically when people kick into grieving from an unexpected loss. People can enter a trans-kind of state of altered consciousness, I call it a post-traumatic consciousness, and it is dramatically different from our everyday state of mind - it's a psychadelic experience.
If trauma is an event or series of events, then processing trauma is a process. In dealing with trauma, we must endure inner and outer chaos with as much support as possible. Initially, dealing with the shock wave of unexpected loss depends on several factors. One is how we can, in the first place, neuro-regulate the intensity of the feelings and then consciously process a mosaic of fragmented emotional and mental details. If we don't have enough internal and external resources to cope with the loss, trauma can get anchored in our bodymind and unconsciously affect our life flow.
A traumatic event is like a magnet or a black hole pulling us inside. - Jasmin Lee Cori
Losing my friend to suicide has left a big hole in my heart and soul. For years, I just couldn't get over it. There were hours when the memory of her suddenly appeared, and I was all of a sudden engulfed by a memory of her, of her face, and voice and deep feelings of grief and guilt accompanied me, sitting on my sofa like ghostly, uninvited guests.
For years, the melancholy echo of her disappeared presence overlapped my December days, dimming Christmas lights, for that was a time in a year when she died. Deep in my soul, I couldn't accept she was gone. I also couldn't get over the fact that I didn't have the opportunity to say goodbye. I also found no comfort in the idea that she'd perhaps vanished into a space of grace without human suffering and pain.
Problem is, I now know - in a retrospective - I also made some decisions in my relationships that were saturated with the unprocessed traumatic energy of my friend's suicide. This is also a reason why I advocate for seeking help after a traumatic event immediately. Although, as a psychologist and trained psychotherapist, I was so familiar with early developmental trauma and its effects on later attachment, relationships in general, and work fulfillment, I underestimated the impact of a single t-trauma of unexpected loss that happened to me.
V. Working with trauma - an energy psychology view
My emotional problems began to dissolve after a London tapping session with Mariam. The problem with traumatic memories is that they often keep us in the past as we tend to hold onto their fear in the present day. For example, since that London tapping session, I have stopped sitting on my sofa, getting lost in thoughts about my friend. I never again had a sense of her sitting in my car, while I was taking a ride alone. A course correction took place within me. Until that November day in London, my body had been only a silent guardian of unprocessed trauma. The trauma remnants spun in circles inside me, affecting my crucial decisions. On that rainy and cold November day, I began to distance myself emotionally and mentally from the complicated chaos created within me by the unexpected death of my friend.
Emotional or psychological trauma involves a specific event or multiple diverse or repetitive events. In the first case, we speak of acute trauma; in the second and third cases, when the circumstances are repeated, the effects accumulate, and we speak of chronic trauma.
However, as much trauma is about the event, is also about the holistic consequences of the event. It's not the sole nature of the event that's a sign of trauma. What matters is the way a person responds to an event and a particular set of circumstances that happens or follows.
So basically, the response to trauma is very individual. The criteria are how a person's body, psyche, and soul react to an event and how the energetic effects of the trauma are processed in the body, mind, and soul. If the event is traumatic for someone, their ability to respond to the situation is consciously exceeded, and the delicate energetic balance (physical, emotional, mental and spiritual) is compromised. If we cannot restore the energetic balance, such events often have far-reaching effects on people's overall well-being and quality of life. Traumatic events include various accidents, losses in all areas of life (expected and unexpected), frequent or chronic illnesses, terminal illnesses, surgeries, challenging pregnancies and births, abuse of any kind, assaults, violence, including self-harm, collective trauma (natural disasters, war, pandemics).
We can think of trauma as shrapnel exploding in the tissues into countless small bullets, which then remain in the tissues of the psyche, causing excruciating pain. Because of the shock and force of the event and our limited ability to deal with it for many reasons, we cannot consciously process the event(s); therefore, the remnants scatter in our inner psychological space and detach from consciousness. When we use energetic, psychological techniques in psychotherapy, we say we're doing trauma work by working with an active origin. Working with a vibrant source is really about picking up beads from the fabric of the psyche. In my practice, I use a combination of Dynamic Energetic Healing®, tapping, and some other forms of energy psychology for this purpose. But the basis of my work is never a technique. It's my therapeutic attitude and presence and how we build a safe and confidential relationship with the women I work with.
Healing work is a process, and even though people would like it not to be and for everything to happen as quickly as possible, trauma work takes time - and this is correct. It needs to be done safely. My London EFT session with Mariam lasted 45 minutes. I'm an experienced client. I've done a lot of inner work and know how to self-regulate; I'm grounded and connected. If that weren't the case, I probably wouldn't get as much out of a single tapping session. In general, trauma work takes a lot of courage and perseverance.
Trauma healing often brings extraordinary growth and opens doors to whole new perspectives on life, but it takes time and energy to get there. That's just the way it's.
VI. Signs and signals of unprocessed trauma
Unprocessed trauma always leaves traces. Those traces are hidden or noticeable imprints on the body, mind, and spirit.
The unprocessed trauma residues, the "shrapnel beads," remain in the fabric of our psyche and sink in deep and far. They can affect our belief matrix and thus our perceptions and the way we frame reality.
Trauma residue manifests in emotional states and behaviors ranging from weak to moderate to very strong. In the broadest sense, unprocessed trauma may look like a set of "symptoms" that the pathologizing diagnostic systems of Western psychiatry, more interested in treating symptoms than in finding the deep, holistic causes, would probably classify as "disturbed".
Unprocessed trauma can show up on all levels of our being: how our body functions, how we deal with our emotions, how our mind functions, and how we shape our relationships and our work.
(a) Emotional parts:
states of restlessness, irritability,
tension, anxiety, panic attacks,
depressive moods, low moods turning suddenly into elevated moods, manic moods,
feelings of guilt and shame,
loss of interest in pleasurable things.
Intrusive images/memories of the event (flashback),
Strong negative beliefs about yourself and the world
Brain fog with dissociation, racing thoughts, obsessive thoughts, excessive worry
low sense of worth
fear of being abandoned
resisting positive, constructive change
anxious mind - constantly worrying about what might happen next
Suspicion and distrust of people,
I avoid others, cling to others, and control others.
No desire for sex, hypersexuality, compulsive masturbation
being overly agreeable
difficulty saying "no," asserting flexible boundaries
boundaries are riding or lacking
tolerating abusive cirrcumstances
craving for external validation
Unusual body pain (with no previous injury)
Frequent illnesses, mysterious illnesses,
Self-destructive behavior - cutting, addictions, eating disorders, body dysmorphia.
Seeking extreme stimulation - adrenaline highs,
Observation in the psychotherapeutic process clearly shows us that many of the problems people have on the spectrum of anxiety and depression are due to the unconscious and untreated consequences of traumatic events.
In my opinion, much of the emotional distress, mental confusion, and physical breakdown is a pure attempt at regulation due to unprocessed trauma that has resulted in dysregulation of body, mind, and spirit and fulfills the deep need for organic balance and wholeness.
The effects of trauma on different people differ. The traces of traumatic events can be evident, but they can also be highly hidden. The harmful effects of a traumatic event always depend on several factors: the age of the person who suffered the trauma and various other circumstances, especially whether the source of the trauma was someone we know, especially someone we love and trust.
When complex events happen in close relationships, we experience a profound betrayal of Love, and this kind of trauma leaves the most profound consequences. They're worst when the cause of the trauma is a parent or someone to whom the child is attached. Violence by a human being also does more damage than impersonal trauma. For example, only a tiny percentage of people who've experienced a natural disaster - less than 5% - develop long-term symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, while more than 50% of people who've been sexually abused, imprisoned, or tortured develop it.
VII. Get professional help
When I think back to the shock of losing my friend to suicide, the sequence of events after her unexpected passing, the grief, and the unbearable traces, it still fills my heart with sadness. Even in retrospect, knowing how my life changed after her death, I sometimes wonder - how many decisions and actions were made that may have had to do with the hidden effects of this trauma after her death? How many traces have these unprocessed trauma residues left in my life? And I wasn't even aware of it? What decisions did I make - and could they have been different if the subtle effects of this trauma hadn't influenced my perception and thinking?
Honestly, I don't know.
A decade and more after her death, I'm left with a dusty book, a couple of her canvases she painted for my daughters and me, and a photo of the two of us, smiling, at a body therapy retreat. The faded memory of her crazy, hazelnut beauty is now mixed with my surrender to life, turning out how life needs to, which isn't necessarily what I want.
What I know now is that I'd never have waited so many years again to deal with such a painful event. I waited more than five years before I touched Pandora's box, opened it, and worked through it with energy psychology. I wouldn't recommend waiting that long to anyone.
So, suppose something has happened in your life that's caused you to feel and act significantly different than you did before the event. In that case, that's a sign of traumatic energy in your body-mind. There's a high chance it will affect your life if you don't consciously process it. Get professional help.
Also, if emotional trauma is happening to someone you love - or it has already happened and you only recognize the effects - urge her/him to seek help. Ask them to seek professional help as soon as possible. There is a strong movement for trauma therapy worldwide. Sometimes the path of trauma healing is simple, but sometimes it's complex and requires a lot of inner work and support from various professionals. Since we can never know how a particular trauma will affect someone, it's important to seek help. We cannot predict how the splinters will behave over time and what areas of our lives will be at risk. Traumatic energy trapped in the body is unpredictable.
It's important to know that self-esteem, the ability to trust other people, and belief in oneself are vital areas where trauma emerges, and that's why it's so hard to seek help when we're traumatized.
If we're not vigilant enough, we can slip into a black cycle, and our lives begin to tip. Unprocessed trauma REALLY leads to physical illness (e.g., inflammatory processes in the body), severe mental health problems, self-injurious behavior, murders, and suicides. So we must do as much as possible to prevent any further complications of unprocessed trauma and the development of trauma-related conditions in the body and mind.
Experience shows it's worth trusting, trying, and taking the risk to walk the path of inner healing. Trauma can be healed, and there is always a life-oriented way out.
In a nutshell
Trauma work is a brave, delicate journey. No matter what kind of trauma we experience - shock, developmental, birth, prenatal, ancestral, or past life trauma - trauma healing is always a journey into the underground, the land of the lost and wounded. But it's also a journey into the promise of rebirth. People always have reasons to avoid trauma work - many self-regulate with drugs, risky activities and overwork to keep body, mind and spirit in minimal balance. The fact is, getting help for trauma in the background can be difficult. After all, trauma, by definition damages trust in ourselves, in goodness, and in other people. Because of this and the lack of trauma psychoeducation, sometimes we have to struggle to take a step. But experience shows that it's worth trusting, trying and taking the risk to walk the path of inner healing; trauma can be healed and there is always a way out, even if sometimes we have to learn to live with our losses and make the impossible peace with our wounds. As Nick Cave wrote:
"We are alone, but we are also connected in the personhood of suffering. We have reached out to each other with nothing to offer but an acceptance of our mutual despair. We must understand that the depths of our anguish signal the heights we can, in time, attain. This is an act of extraordinary faith. It makes demands on the vast reserves of inner strength that you may not even be aware of. But they are there."
** Tina Božič is a psychologist and psychotherapist. In her private practice, she helps women heal deep soul wounds to build lives on their own sacred terms. Tina specializes in energy work in psychotherapy tailored to heal the painful effects of trauma in relationships.