Many of us are all familiar with the idea of post-traumatic stress – it makes sense to us that when bad things happen, we will suffer the consequences in our bodies, feelings, minds or within our relationships with others. We hear a lot about this these days, and there is a risk of accruing levels of stress during this unprecedented season we are in. What we hear less about is the research and opportunities for post-traumatic growth – our capacity to emerge from trauma more developmentally advanced than we were before.
So…what is it exactly that causes one person to suffer from post-traumatic stress, while another can experience post-traumatic growth in the face of trauma and tragedy?
Numerous research studies and the clinical practices of many renowned therapists show that one of the primary factors that differentiates post-traumatic growth from post-traumatic stress is whether the individual was able to mobilize their internal resources to protect, defend or escape or whether they became immobilized and had less access to these internal resources both amidst the traumatic event and in the aftermath.
Think of a gazelle that hears a sound nearby and catches sight of a predator coming their way. The gazelle will mobilize into fleeing immediately – it is their instinctual nature. The gazelle will run as far and fast as it can, unless it sees and senses that there is in fact no escape. In this case, it will freeze and drop to the ground, corpse-like, completely immobilized and numb, before the predator’s teeth ever touch its flesh. If, by some stroke of luck, the corpse-like gazelle is dragged back to the predator’s cave and is left to be eaten later – it will instinctively emerge from this immobilized state as soon as escape becomes possible – it will mobilize itself into action once again.
The initial collapse into immobility and subsequent mobilization that follows are the gazelle’s best survival defenses against a predator. That said, the stress of running for its life (mobility), and then putting on life-saving brakes in order to go into a death-like state (immobility) produce a massive amount of energy in the gazelle’s nervous system that is naturally released when the gazelle perceives itself safe again. The gazelle’s body will shake, chatter and vibrate until all that energy is discharged and then will remarkably return to a healthy regulated state of functioning.
As humans our system works in a similar way; however, our instinctual drives – both towards mobility and immobility – are often thwarted by our awareness of ourselves, others and the environment which increases our risk of being traumatized.
So…back to North America today. In more accessible terms: if we are able to do something about the threat or trauma when we are in the midst of it or in its aftermath, we are far less likely to develop severe traumatic symptoms and may experience post-traumatic growth.
We will all experience degrees of immobility in the midst of this pandemic. It is human nature to go still and preserve energy (immobility) when we feel there is no escape from a real or perceived threat. Immobility can come in the form of low mood, lack of motivation, difficulty getting up, restlessness, feelings of apathy and disconnection and a tendency towards isolation and much more.
The challenge for us as humans is that there won’t be a natural moment for escape, where we will know “this is my chance…. RUN!!!”. We likely won’t notice or know how to discharge all the energy that is being generated by our nervous systems as it tries to protect and preserve us amidst our current circumstances.
So…the most fundamental thing we can do to care for ourselves and minimize ongoing risk of post-traumatic stress and other mental health challenges, is to mobilize, to feel that we are ‘doing something about it’.
Some things we may do to mobilize during this time, could be:
- Expressing our struggles to someone that can hear it and support us (speaking is mobilizing!)
- Doing something about the stuff from our past that is suddenly coming up by finally addressing old memories or broken relationships (have you been noticing how all those old memories are re-emerging right now?)
- Doing something about the suffering we see in others through practical or emotional support measures
- Doing something about lost parts of our personality or talents by re-engaging in creative endeavors that we haven’t had time for in the past
- Doing something about the lack of ‘mobility’ in our lives by dancing (or shaking like a traumatized gazelle) or cleaning out a room in our home that symbolizes a build-up of unprocessed stuff inside and outside our bodies and psyches
What’s important is that we find ways to do something about what is happening in the present and the consequences it is having on our lives and well-being today. This does not need to be grand or public, it just needs to help us face our own truths and realities.
Shoreline Counselling has created a number of avenues for you to be part of “doing something about it” with us. You can find out more about some of our offerings (many of which are free of charge during this season – so we can enter into “doing something about it” too!) through our website or social media.
Whether it’s in conjunction with us or not, find ways to mobilize your system to be able to join us in an overwhelming wave of post-traumatic growth that will change ourselves, our circles and our country.