What We Can Learn About Trauma, from Experts & Survivors

We’re living through a period of collective grief and pain, and it will resonate in people’s lives for years. Here, trauma survivors share what they’ve learned along the way.

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

Eight years after the motorcycle crash that changed her life forever, Rebekah Kousa saw the inside of an ambulance for the first time since the accident. She was touring a fire station during a community presentation, and the EMTs offered to let her see the vehicle. As the group approached the ambulance, Kousa started shaking, broke out in sweat, and felt like she couldn’t breathe. “Here I am, thinking I’m living life and going on with life and doing fine,” she says. Then, memories from the past instantly come back, and are unable to control.

“It’s almost like it turns on a switch, and all of a sudden you’re right back in that moment,” says Kousa, a 45-year-old teacher from Manassas, VA. In 2010, Kousa was in a motorcycle crash that shattered her left leg and took months to recover from. The following year, she noticed the psychological effects of that experience. She had a hard time being in cars, especially if there was a motorcycle nearby. Even the sound of bikes revving could make her emotional. To this day, she still has moments where she needs to stop and take a deep breath to calm her nerves. Not to mention, the isolation of the current coronavirus pandemic brings her back to when she was stuck at home during her recovery.

The Trauma of This Moment

Kousa’s experience fits hallmark signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can occur months and years after someone’s exposure to a traumatic event (violence, natural disasters, military combat, etc.). Though about 50% of U.S. adults will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives, a much smaller number (6.8% of people) develop lasting PTSD symptoms as a result. Symptoms include flashbacks, sleeping problems, detachment, avoidance, anxiety, and depression. And to be officially diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have these signs for at least one month, though it may take months or even years for symptoms to fully appear.

This moment of collective grief and trauma could be a catalyst for mental health issues like PTSD, explains Sheila Rauch, PhD, psychiatry professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA. “There are people who are losing loved ones in very traumatic ways,” she says, as well as healthcare workers spending every day in hospitals that resemble war zones.

Police brutality can also have lasting psychological impacts on black communities, whether or not it garners the media attention of cases like George Floyd. A comprehensive 2018 study in The Lancet found that police killings of unarmed black Americans had a negative effect on mental health for black residents across the state where the violence occurred. For the people directly involved in those events – family members, bystanders, friends – that pain could stick with them for years.

“In the environment that we’re living in right now, trauma is pervasive,” says Alauna Curry, MD, trauma psychiatrist in Houston, TX and creator of the online Trauma Recovery Academy. “The way I define it is any situation that is so painful internally that it causes you to change the way you think about yourself, the world, or other people.” For black people especially, the police violence occurring in the news and in their own communities could be directly triggering. “Racism is not even identified as something that can cause trauma,” Dr. Curry says. “That’s part of systemic structures that have not allowed recognition of this particular issue.”

If a protestor who has had a previous negative experience with law enforcement has another scary encounter, that’s heaping trauma on top of another previous trauma, Dr. Curry explains. The same goes for someone who has lost a loved one to COVID-19 and now faces another family member or friend who is seriously ill. It often takes months to recognize how situations are affecting you, and by then, the ingrained mental health effects can be difficult to shake.

The Aftermath of Trauma

For 43-year-old Eddie McNamara of NYC, the initial traumatic event (or “target trauma,” as Rauch calls it) was his work as a 9/11 first responder. Four months after the attack, McNamara got some time off work due to an injury, when he finally got to step back and recognize the shifts in his mental health. “The first sign was a severe panic attack when I was driving to a doctor’s appointment,” he remembers. He brushed it off, but then it happened again on the subway… and again at the grocery store. He also became hypervigilant. “I felt like I was in danger as soon as I left my apartment and went into the world,” he says. “I completely overestimated the likelihood of something dangerous happening.”

McNamara began avoiding social interactions and distancing himself from people and activities he used to love. “I knew I needed help after six months when I didn’t just shake the symptoms off,” he says. “It kept getting worse.” He didn’t seek out that help until three years later, when he took the step to connect with psychiatrists and therapists who specialized in trauma recovery.

Slowly, over a period of several years, he worked through those painful memories. “It took a lot of time and serious effort, but I was able to sit with and accept my memories and experiences, no matter how unpleasant (or awful) they were,” he says. “That was a huge relief for me.”

Seeking Help

It’s important to recognize that you are not defined by your previous traumas, and you can find a way to move forward from them. “The question becomes, how do we make our trauma work for us so we can come out of it as not just survivors, but with a system where everyone can thrive?” Dr. Curry asks. “Trauma is a treatable condition, and the treatments really have to do with understanding how your body and your biology shapes the way you perceive information.” Essentially, the more you know about what you’re working through, the better off you’ll be in the long run.

During this difficult time, here’s what you can do to protect your mental health.

  • Pay attention to your own mind. With so much going on externally, you’re likely using up a lot of energy on other people: taking care of their health, engaging with them about racism and the need for social change, or doing what’s needed at work. “The way humans are designed, we are very, very good at seeing what everyone else is doing, and recognizing other people’s problematic thought processes and behaviors,” Dr. Curry says. “But we have a huge blind spot for ourselves.”

    Take some time to learn about trauma and the way it affects the mind and body (just like you’re doing right now by reading this). The more you learn, the more you’ll recognize that your feelings are valid – even normal! Whatever you do, don’t push your uncomfortable emotions away and try to forget them. “The more that we push our emotions away, the more they have a chance to get stuck and to make us feel out of control,” Rauch explains. Instead, sit with those feelings, talk to people around you, and lean on others for support during tough days.

  • If you’re able, seek out professional help. “A person should seek help at any point that they feel like they need that help,” Rauch says. If you’re not sleeping, unable to concentrate on your work, or generally feeling like you can’t go about your day normally, it may be time to seek out a licensed mental health professional. Dr. Curry recommends looking for someone you relate to – whether they share your gender identity, ethnic background, age, or other identifying characteristics. “Their approach to the therapy can be more empathetic and more understanding for you,” she says.

    If you have health insurance, your insurance company can provide you with a list of professionals in your area. If you don’t have insurance, look for trauma recovery groups (like Dr. Curry’s online empathy skills program, which is available on her website).

  • Practice meditation and mindfulness. “Meditation, physiologically, helps to ground a person in reality,” Dr. Curry says. “It helps to calm the mind and decrease stress.” This can help you realize that you can’t control your thoughts, and likewise, your thoughts can’t control you. Try an app like Headspace or Calm if you need some instruction.

    McNamara has found yoga and meditation to be very helpful in his recovery. “I got into yoga and meditation shortly after [beginning work with therapists], and that’s been a tremendous help,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d become someone with a mindfulness meditation practice, but I’m glad I am.”

  • Be gentle with yourself. “Most people’s biggest critic is their own mind,” Dr. Curry says. Don’t try to tell yourself how you should or shouldn’t be feeling. “It is biologically programmed as a human to have a lot of emotions when you experience trauma.”

    Rauch echoes this. “It’s normal to think about events that are emotionally upsetting,” she says. “It’s okay to have strong feelings about difficult experiences you’re going through.” For the majority of people, that trauma won’t turn into PTSD–but if it does, that’s okay, too. You can still get through it with help from professionals and from people around you.

  • Find others with shared experiences. For Kousa, her recovery has been a years-long process, enhanced by her time in a trauma support program, where she got to know other survivors who helped her feel less alone. She continues to reach out to those friends when she’s having a particularly tough time. “Having that person to talk to and share your stories has been monumental for me,” Kousa says. She has now become a trauma educator, helping others in her community work through their experiences and heal together at her local trauma center.

Recovery–from PTSD or any past trauma–is complicated and multi-layered, and it can take a toll on your mind and body. During the chaos of the moment, don’t forget to take the time you need to nourish your mind. The world needs all you have to offer, and the only way to give that is to care for yourself and be proactive about seeking recovery.

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.