How people perceive things depends on their life experiences. What is traumatic to one person may not be for someone else. We all have ‘buttons’ that can be pressed by a traumatic event, but the trigger will be different for every person.
For example, a parent may experience a trauma response when exposed to a situation or information regarding a child being harmed. Another person’s trigger may be feeling powerless and unable to help in a life or death situation.
There are different ways that you might be exposed to a traumatic situation. The first category includes incidents where you are an active participant. These incidents are often high risk and potentially violent, for example:
- police shootings
- police pursuits
- siege situations
- exposure to toxins/body fluids
- serious threat, assault or injury to Victoria Police members
- natural disasters where there is an active threat to life
However, you may also experience a trauma reaction when you are not present for the actual event, but arrive to encounter the aftermath of the event. Or if you are exposed to information relating to the death or harm of others, such as:
- exposure to seriously or mortally wounded members of the public
- death or serious injury of another Victoria Police employee
- cases of child abuse
- motor vehicle accidents
- the aftermath of natural disasters
Reactions to trauma
Feeling distress when confronted with a traumatic event is a normal response to an abnormal situation. Most people recover in the weeks following the incident, particularly with the help of caring family members and friends.
However, for some people, the symptoms do not resolve quickly, or at all. People with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often experience feelings of panic or extreme fear, similar to the fear they felt during the traumatic event. A person with PTSD experiences changes in four main areas:
Re-experiencing the trauma event through memories, thoughts, “flashbacks” and nightmares
“I keep seeing images of their faces”
“My partner tells me I’m thrashing around and crying in my sleep. I don’t remember it when I wake up”
“Sometimes it feels like I’m back in the incident and it’s happening again. It just comes out of nowhere”
“I started crying at the shoe shop. It was only afterwards that I realised I was looking at the same kind of shoes the victim was wearing”
Avoiding reminders of the event
“I take a different route to work now, so I don’t go past the crash site”
“I don’t hang out with my colleagues in the unit so much anymore. They attended the incident and seeing them reminds me of what happened”
“I don’t want to talk about that night with anyone”
“Drinking helps to distract me on the bad days”
Negative changes in how you think and feel
“I should have done more; I could have changed the situation somehow. I can’t get over that part.”
“I won’t let my kids play in the front yard anymore. You don’t know who is out there”
“I feel different from other people now. They don’t get it”
“I just can’t be bothered to do the things I used to like”
Feeling ‘on edge’
“Yesterday I found myself screaming at my partner. I don’t know how it escalated so quickly”
“My son slammed a door the other day and I jumped a mile”
“My husband noticed that I sit with my back to the wall and am constantly looking around us when we go out to eat”
“I can’t focus. I have trouble falling asleep. I feel wired all the time”
“I drive much faster now. It feels like a rush. I didn’t use to do that”
“I get so much pain in my jaw and shoulders from being tense”
A response to trauma can happen in a number of ways
- Cumulative PTSD is when repeated experiences of traumatic events result in reactions that become progressively worse over time. In this case, you may become more reactive and debilitated by events that would not have affected you in the past
- Trauma symptoms may occur unexpectedly where there is no warning before the symptoms start There may be a delay of days, weeks, months or even years between the incident and your symptoms.
- Trauma symptoms may be directly connected to one isolated traumatic event, and occur soon after the incident
- Trauma symptoms may also vary in intensity over time
A person may suffer symptoms of trauma without meeting a full diagnosis of PTSD. This does not mean that their experience is any less serious or that they are less in need of support.
The experience of any trauma can have an extremely debilitating impact. There is support available to help you manage and overcome the impact of trauma.
Why do I react like this?
Part of the trauma response is your body being on alert to protect you. When you face a perceived threat, your body responds by charging up so you can stay and fight, or run from the threat. This is the fight or flight response. It involves changes such as your heart beating faster, your breathing being shallow and your muscles tensing. If you can’t fight or run, or your system is completely overwhelmed, your body might go into a freeze response. The freeze response is often over quickly, but can feel very frightening.
Many of the symptoms of PTSD are your body’s way of trying to protect you. For example, being highly alert might have helped you survive at the time of the trauma incident, and your body has learnt this is a way to keep you safe. Trauma memories are also stored in a different way than other memories, so it feels like the threat is still present and happening.
A big part of treatment for trauma involves teaching your body and mind that you are safe and the trauma is over. You can’t change what happened. But you can develop a different perspective that helps you see the trauma as a memory that is over, rather than an experience that continues to happen.
How to manage your symptoms
Recognise that trauma symptoms are your body’s way of trying to help you survive, and that symptoms make sense given your experience of trauma. Step back from self-criticism and acknowledge that you are doing the best you can right now.
Calm your breathing
After the experience of trauma, your nervous system can feel very charged up. Your breathing may be very shallow and rapid, or you might find throughout the day that you’re holding your breath without noticing. Slowing your breathing down can help calm your body and allow you to feel more in control. There are many breathing exercises you can try like extending your exhale for longer than your inhale.
Relax your body
Being on edge means that your body’s muscles are tensed, making your other symptoms even worse. Most people find that they carry muscle tension in certain parts of their body, such as the shoulders or jaw. Get to know where your tension spots are and learn how to relax these areas.
In addition to feeling anxious and on edge, you can feel slowed down, numb, fatigued and sluggish as a response to trauma. You may fluctuate between these two states, maybe feeling on edge at work and then overly flat and numb at home. Moving the body is tough when you’re feeling so low, but it will energise the body rather than creating more fatigue. Plan activities ahead of time, start small and make it achievable. Remember, a 10-minute walk is better than not walking at all.
Exercise, eat a healthy diet and try to establish a regular sleep routine. This sets a strong foundation to increase your resilience and cope with traumatic incidents.
‘Flashback’ memories of the trauma can make you feel like you’re experiencing it all over again. Mindfulness allows you to come back to the here and now, to identify that the event is over and you are safe. Mindfulness also helps you to step back from overwhelming thoughts and feelings so you can take control over how you want to respond. This can be particularly helpful if you want to manage anger.
What resources are already in your life? Who can you turn to for support? Talk to those close to you, even if this feels difficult. If you believe your social network is not able to help you, or you need more intensive support, contact a health professional.
A counsellor or psychologist can help you develop skills to challenge unhelpful thoughts, calm your body down and develop a healthier relationship with trauma memories. For some people, medication can assist in strengthening the effectiveness of talking therapy. Your GP may be able to provide some guidance around whether this is an appropriate option for you.
There are many different treatment options that can help you manage and overcome the impact of trauma. For example, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) can be highly effective psychological treatments for trauma.
Talking to your GP about what you are experiencing can be a good starting point. They may be able to offer you a referral to an appropriate trauma specialist, and in some cases can prescribe medication improve symptoms.
You can also access free confidential counselling through the Police Psychology Unit or The Police Association Victoria.