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Opinion: Processing a traumatic event is never easy

Jan Bryant, a North Vancouver counsellor and educator, offers advice on how to deal with traumatic events in light of the recent stabbing attacks at Lynn Valley Village.
LV Stabbing Memorial 10 web
Residents lay cards and flowers on a quickly growing memorial outside the Lynn Valley Library complex Sunday, March 28, one day after a man killed one person and injured six others in a knife attack.

If you have experienced a traumatic event, you may be: 

  • having images repeatedly coming to mind;
  • feeling overwhelmed with a rush of emotions or anxiety;
  • rethinking everything you did during the event;
  • having trouble sleeping;
  • feeling a bit disconnected from yourself or those around you;
  • struggling to make sense of what you have experienced;
  • feeling unsafe or unprepared to go out again.

It helps if you understand what happened to you. When we are faced with something unexpected and potentially life-threatening, our brains are hard-wired to default to the self-preservation impulses which are usually described as “fight or flight” – take action or run away. You could also “freeze” – like rabbits or deer in the headlights and “flop” – like opossums. 

Your pre-frontal cortex – the part of your brain that thinks things through, plans, considers options, and chooses – is offline. You do not know until you are in this kind of situation how you will react and you may react differently in different situations. During the event, you get a rush of adrenalin and stress hormones to enable you to react. As you recall the event later, you may experience a similar rush of intense emotions. This is a normal reaction to an abnormal event. It should subside over time.

Many people, after the event is over, rethink every single thing they did and think what they could or should have done differently, often being very critical of themselves. In the moment you did not have the time, or the mental capacity, to thoughtfully consider and assess potential or alternative courses of action – you just reacted. Try not to be hard on yourself and try not to criticize others for how they reacted. You did the best you could at the time with the information you had in that moment.

What to do after a traumatic experience 

Following a traumatic experience, your brain is trying to make sense of what has happened and trying to fit that information into your pre-existing world view. 

Your brain does this while you are awake and asleep, which is why your thoughts and sleep may be disturbed. It may take several days or weeks for your brain to process, sort, understand and file this information. Talking to a trusted person might help during this process or finding out the facts about the situation. 

Do not attempt to process this on a social media platform. You experienced it from your perspective but there may be other perspectives that can give you a fuller picture. However, do not obsessively watch video footage or the news and overwhelm your brain with more pictures of this event. 

When an image, sound, or thought pops into your mind, or you get a flood of emotions, acknowledge it as something from a past event that is still being processed, sit with it for a few minutes, then move on. You always want to reorient to the present. Where am I now? Am I safe? What can I see, hear, touch, smell, taste? You are training your brain to understand: “That was then, this is now.”

Techniques to stay calm 

One way to help ourselves calm down is deep breathing. When we are anxious and overwhelmed, we often cannot take a deep breath and are short of oxygen, so our brain sends us error messages, usually anxious ones. 

Slowly, to the count of five, exhale all the air from your lungs, then slowly, to the count of five, inhale. Hold it for two seconds, so the oxygen has time to absorb into your bloodstream, then slowly exhale again. Do this five or six times until you find your heart rate slowing and your shoulders relaxing. Then smile, so the freshly oxygenated blood gets to your brain. This should help the anxious feelings subside.

We want to understand why this happened, so we can be prepared or prevent it from happening again. However, there might be no clear answer to the "why" question. Sometimes we need to acknowledge and factor into our worldview that seemingly random and awful things happen and we can’t prevent them. This can make us fearful or wary of our formerly safe spaces. 

Reclaim your safe spaces 

As part of the process of healing, we need to reclaim our safe spaces. I do not recommend immediately going back to where it happened unless you feel comfortable with that. Proceed at your own pace. For some people, going outside and standing on their front steps is all they can manage to start with. Then perhaps take a walk around the block near your home. 

Take it step by step. Go to where you feel some discomfort but it is not overwhelming, stand there, look around and breathe deeply. Come back as often as you need to in small doses. You may want to take an understanding friend with you. Work to build up your zone of safety until you have reclaimed your space. It is OK to not go back if you don’t feel ready.

Specific trauma therapy is an option

Normally, the understanding and integration process happens over time and with distance from the event, and from you allowing yourself the time and space to process your experience without dwelling on it. If you find that after six weeks you are still struggling or feeling stuck, specific trauma therapy might be helpful.

Trauma training is not part of most counselling training programs. If you are seeking a counsellor, find one who specializes in trauma, and ask them to explain their understanding of what happens to a person who experiences trauma. If that makes sense to you, ask them how they treat trauma and what specialized training they have. If they suggest telling your story and talking it through repeatedly, find another therapist. 

After six weeks, constantly telling your story entrenches it into your thinking patterns and can be retraumatizing. Make sure the therapy method they propose makes sense to you. Do some research until you find a good fit with someone you trust.

Get help from counsellors with specialized trauma training:

In B.C., they are either RCCs – Registered Clinical Counsellors, credentialled through BCACC; or CCCs – Certified Canadian Counsellors, credentialed through the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association

Their websites provide a directory of counsellors in your area and lists their areas of specialization.

Psychologists and Psychiatrists are also sources of help.

The Canadian Mental Health Association's North and West Vancouver website has a good list of resources available in our community.  

Above all, reconnect to the people and things that bring you comfort, peace, safety and pleasure (not including drugs and alcohol) and enrich your life with meaning.

Jan Bryant is a counsellor and educator in North Vancouver.