*Written by Julie Bluhm. Julie, a social worker by training, is passionate about driving systemic change and creating solutions that really work. Julie joined Guild as the CEO/Executive Director in 2017.
Guild is concerned about the level of collective trauma our communities are experiencing.
“Trauma” is a word we’re hearing a lot lately, so my hope is to break the word down into what it is, it’s immediate and lasting impact on people, and to comment on how we may be impacted by it—more than ever—right now.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Many people are familiar with the term PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is the result of experiencing a traumatic event that leads to acute symptoms: nightmares, intrusive images, avoidance, anxiety and panic that become so severe they result in disruption to daily functioning. The official definition of a traumatic event that leads to PTSD is:
Exposure to one or more event(s) that involved death or threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or threatened sexual violation. In addition, these events were experienced in one or more of the following ways:
- Directly experiencing the event.
- Witnessing the event as it occurred to someone else.
- You learned about an event where a close relative or friend experienced an actual or threatened violent or accidental death.
- Experiencing repeated exposure to distressing details of an event.
Not every experience of trauma results in PTSD. Our brains can synthesize traumatic events without it impacting our daily functioning. Factors that help are:
- That event happens once and has a clear start and end and a clear cause (e.: natural disaster, car accident, a crime committed by someone who is no longer a danger).
- Other people either witnessed the event, agree that it was traumatic, and/or are supportive of the person who experienced the trauma.
- There was some way for the person who experienced the event to take action to support their own safety (e.: run away, fight, get to safety).
When someone is able to synthesize a traumatic experience, they still retain the memory of the event, so they can take actions in the future to support their own safety. It becomes “encoded” in their bodies and brain, offering additional growth and wisdom.
When a traumatic event is not synthesized, the brain literally gets stuck, processing the event over and over again, attempting to make sense of it. This accounts for the distressing and disabling symptoms of PTSD. When un-synthesized events continue to occur, it can lead to what we call “complex trauma”. Factors that contribute to this are:
- The event continues to happen without a clear start or end. The person lives in a perpetual state that it could reoccur at any time and the danger remains without a clear sense of how to protect oneself in the future.
- Other people don’t know what has occurred or is continuing to occur and/or don’t believe the person who has experienced the event or is continuing to experience it.
- There is no clear way to act in order to be safe.
Complex trauma and untreated PTSD lead to very serious problems:
- Inability to focus or concentrate.
- Panic attacks, long-term generalized anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.
- Drug abuse and addiction.
- Obesity, heart disease, hypertension, decreased immune function.
Further, recent research suggests that trauma experiences and symptoms can be passed on genetically through generations. It makes sense if you think about it—our bodies are made to survive, at a biological level, we want to live as long as possible and produce healthy offspring. If we experience a threat to life, our bodies learn how from the threat to maintain future safety. Passing this lesson through generations would help to keep each person safe.
What Happens When We Witness Trauma
Think about how often the following has happened to you lately:
I finish my day, sit down to relax and open my Facebook feed. Next to newly posted pictures of my nephews playing in the ocean is a video of someone being harmed or the announcement of a friend’s illness. If I press play or choose to read the post, I become a witness to a traumatic event.
This causes the following to occur: my body releases a surge of hormones called cortisol, designed to protect me in case I am in acute danger. With the rush of hormones, my body prepares to do what it takes to save my life. My breathing becomes shallow and my blood rushes to my limbs so I can run more efficiently. My digestive system wants to empty to lighten my body, resulting in nausea or stomach cramps. But, there’s no need to run. I’m in my living room. Sitting next to my husband, who is trying to tell me about his day—he has no idea what I just saw.
Next, I see comments and arguments about whether this—this clear, brutal, horrific incident that I just witnessed—is justified. Or I see comments telling me I need to do something—but I can’t act. I’m flooded with thoughts: guilt, fear, sadness, anger. I can’t even hug my family right now or get support in that way, because doing so could endanger their lives.
The above is not a dramatization, it’s something that many, many people are experiencing regularly. For those who have PTSD, other mental health disorders, complex or historical trauma, this represents a daily, if not hourly, reliving and re-experiencing of trauma. This comes without a clear start or end. Without a way to act in order to be safe.
This is not normal. We as human beings were not designed to process the amount of devastating information that we are exposed to every single day. And, it’s important to remember that some people are forced to live this trauma, not just witness it.
Today, I don’t have a call to action. We are living this is real time, without an end in sight. At Guild, we see how this experience of trauma impacts every area of our lives and the lives of those we serve. Homelessness, addiction, serious mental illness, unemployment… it’s what we do. We stand by our community and offer what relief we can. We are committed to speaking up and acting to make the world a better place for everyone. We are here for you. Always.
You can reach trained Guild staff who are able to provide resources, referrals, and help by calling (651) 925-8490.