Emma Kavanagh was born in Wales in 1978 and currently lives in South Wales with her husband and their one year old son. She trained as a psychologist and after leaving university, started her own business as a psychology consultant, specialising in human performance in extreme situations. For seven years she provided training and consultation for police forces and NATO and military personnel throughout the UK and Europe. The paperback version of her latest novel The Missing Hours, is out today, 17th November, and you can read the Fully Booked review by clicking the blue title link. Emma has written a piece for us on the complex subject of trauma.
A mentor of mine – a brilliant trauma psychologist – used to say to me that in every traumatic event, there is always that moment, that split second in which everything shifts from normal to terrifying. And that in that moment, everything we have ever known of ourselves is called into question.
I have always been fascinated by that moment, by what it does to us, and what follows on from it.
In The Missing Hours, both Ed Cole and Beck Chambers have experienced their fair share of trauma. For Ed it was the experience of war and its physical effects. For Beck, a war and a hostage experience. Both men handle things very differently. One surviving, thriving even. The other turning to drugs and alcohol.
For me, my trauma was giving birth. When my son was born and my bleeding wouldn’t stop and suddenly doctors filled the room. I watched the colour drain from my husband’s face, heard the midwives voices climb in register and I believed that I was about to die.
That I didn’t die (obviously!) made little difference to my perception of the event. I was left with nightmares, anxiety, a trail of obsessive thoughts that began and ended in the delivery room. I did not have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I was, however, traumatised.
Terrifying events do not have to push us into mental illness to have an effect on us. The belief that one is about to die brings with it repercussions. As do car crashes and break ups and betrayals. In each of these events, our bodies sense danger. Our adrenal glands release adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. They prepare us to fight or to flee. But when there is nothing to fight, nowhere to flee, these physiological reactions can lead us into longer term effects.
Following on from a traumatic event, things like a loss of appetite, diarrhoea, an increased startle reaction and mysterious aches and pains are common. For me it was sleep that suffered. I would lay awake nights reliving the pooling blood, the doctor saying “It’s not stopping.” The obsessive thoughts circled constantly, invading in each quiet moment. I became anxious and experienced a sadness that was a hair’s breadth from depression. Others may become angry, feel out of control, attempt to isolate themselves, or, as in Beck Chambers’ case, use drugs and alcohol to cope with their feelings.
Remember, that in any traumatic event, there comes that moment in which the entire world shifts off its axis and nothing is quite as it was before. That is a huge thing to cope with. We have to learn to process what has happened – the cancer diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, the attack that came from nowhere. We have to allow our brains to twist it and turn it, and create a new understanding of our world that now includes this dreadful thing.
Such things are not done in a day.
Trauma changes who we are. But that does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. In The Missing Hours, Ed has survived terrible injuries and yet has thrived in the face of them, building a family and a business. Beck, on the other hand, has struggled, beaten down by his experiences. So it is with the world – some will have their lives ruined by traumatic stress, others will show remarkable resilience in the face of it.
Much of this comes down to personality and to history. Risk factors for suffering from traumatic stress include already being under a heavy stress load or lack of social support. The experience of childhood trauma is perhaps one of the biggest risk factors – exposure to trauma in the early years re-shapes our brain, changing the way in which it operates, and making us more prone to react to later negative events.
Then there are the resilience factors – the ones that help people to survive and even to thrive. A strong social support network is a big one – having the ability to talk through your feelings, finding others with similar experiences, receiving love and feeling validated, all of these things act as a buffer, protecting us from psychological harm. Many people who have thrived in the aftermath of traumatic events can point to a role model – a parent, a grandparent – whose behaviour gave them a blueprint of how to be strong. Having a generally positive view of yourself and confidence in your ability to solve problems also means that your are more likely to attempt to deal with your issues head on, rather than trying to deny they exist.
Now I find myself asking – am I Ed or am I Beck? Did I thrive? Or was I crippled? In truth, for a while there, I was Beck (although without the substance abuse issues). Birth was supposed to be a joyous event. How could I possibly feel so scarred by it?
It took me many months to come to a point at which I could talk about the nightmares, about the obsessive thoughts. In fact, for months, I didn’t talk about my son’s birth at all. I just couldn’t. Then one day I sat down with my best friend and told her everything. Then I told her again, then again. Then I talked to my health visitor. Then my GP. Then a midwife. Turned out, birth trauma is a very real, very common thing.
The good thing about resilience, about learning to survive traumas, is that we can build it up. We can make ourselves resilient. And talking about it to people who will understand, that’s a great way of helping yourself recover. Another key thing is to use an active coping style – don’t let the trauma cut you off from people, don’t deny it or refuse to think about it. In active coping, you identify the problem (‘I’m haunted by my son’s birth’) and then you go about finding solutions (ie, talking to friends, experts, seek guidance). Accepting the emotional fall-out is important too. The world has shifted. It will take some time before everything settles down again.
When you do experience a traumatic event, remind yourself that, at some point in the future, this will all be just a story that you will tell. My favourite mantra has become “This too shall pass.”
Psychologists have found that a powerful way of building up our own resiliency is by a process known as ‘Required Helpfulness’. It was discovered during World War 2 that those who cared for others after bombardments suffered less post traumatic stress than did those who were not care-giving. Channeling your energies into caring for others can help your self esteem and self-worth.
I recovered from that trauma. I even went onto have another child. My eldest son is now 5 years old and I’m doing fine.
Traumatic events are an intrinsic part of life. We cannot escape them. Fortunately we can learn to build up our own resiliency so that, when the worst does happen, we are in the best possible position to survive and even to thrive.