Recovering Emotionally From a Traumatic Experience

Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. It won't be easy to pick your way through the aftermath of this heart-wrenching experience. But you can take an important first step in the right direction by making sure that your expectations are realistic.

Bear in mind that a disaster is a disaster. There's no quick and simple way to recover from the wounds and losses you've sustained. It's one thing to deal with the normal strains and stresses of life. But the very meaning of the word trauma can be summed up as "too much too quick." So keep your head on straight and be patient with yourself.

It's likely that the events of the past several weeks have pushed you beyond the limits of anything you've ever had to endure before. If you feel overwhelmed, remember that your reaction is normal. Your case is not hopeless. But it's going to take determination and perseverance to get past the pain and devastation that seem so paralyzing and all-encompassing at the present moment.

The human spirit is amazingly resilient. Most of us stand a pretty good chance of being exposed to some kind of trauma during our lifetime, whether directly or indirectly. By the same token, most of us have a remarkable ability to survive, adapt, and respond. Time eventually heals most wounds. In addition to its beneficial effects, your ability to get through this difficult experience depends upon several interrelated factors:

  • The coping mechanisms you've developed over the years.
  • The quality of your relationships with family and friends.
  • Your personality type.
  • The degree to which you've maintained a strong connection with your church, your faith community, or a small support group.

In most cases, the process of adjustment takes place over a period of about three months. That three-month period can seem like an eternity when you're in the middle of it. But take heart. It will come to a conclusion, and you will eventually see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Meanwhile, there are some practical things you can do to keep the ball rolling in a positive direction.

  • Get in touch with your feelings and make a conscious decision to embrace your pain.
    Up to this point you've probably been focusing on survival. In many ways it would be easier to remain in that "task-oriented" frame of mind. Moving forward means facing the implications of your loss. But you need to resist the temptation to get stuck in that mode. Give yourself permission to grieve. This is particularly important if you have a spouse and children who are looking to you for guidance and support. You won't be able to help them until you've begun to experience the healing process for yourself.
  • Express honest emotion by journaling or talking with someone you can trust.
    Whether in a group setting or a one-on-one relationship, you need to communicate your feelings. If you are a Christian, it's particularly important to maintain connections with friends who share your faith. Be open about your emotions but don't obsess over them. In some cases too much talk can revive unwanted memories and retrigger the trauma. Feel the freedom to back off for a time if you need to.
  • Take time for prayer by yourself and with family and friends.
    Pay proper attention to the spiritual implications of your sufferings. Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions, like "How could a loving God allow this to happen?" or "What sense does this make in the larger scheme of things?" Express your feelings honestly to God. Share them with those who are wrestling with these issues alongside you. Don't get discouraged if you don't get the answers you're seeking. The Lord hasn't guaranteed that all of our doubts will be resolved. But He does promise to stand beside us through thick and thin (Hebrews 13:5). Remember the words of the apostle Paul:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 38-39)

  • Get help from a professional counselor.
    It's especially important to consider this option if three months have gone by and you still find yourself struggling with intrusive memories, nightmares, disrupted sleep patterns, increased levels of stress, a tendency to withdraw from social contacts, or a numbing of the emotions. These are all classic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a medically diagnosed condition that affects about eight or nine percent of individuals who have experienced some kind of disaster or tragic loss.

Feel free to contact Focus on the Family's Counseling department if you think it might be helpful to discuss your situation with a member of our team. Our counselors can help you locate a qualified Christian therapist practicing in your area. They would also be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you over the phone.

 

Resources
Parenting in the Midst of Tragedy

Understanding and Coping With Trauma

When God Doesn't Make Sense

Recovering From Losses in Life

Lord, Where Are You When Bad Things Happen?

If God Is Good . . . Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil

Stronger: Trading Brokenness for Unbreakable Strength

For the Tough Times: Reaching Toward Heaven for Hope

A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, Expanded Edition

Referrals
World Harvest

Operation Blessing

World Vision

Compassion International

Samaritan's Purse

Adapted from Understanding and Coping with Trauma. Copyright © 2008, 2011 Focus on the Family.