Context 2: Trauma: Experience, Effects and Recovery

[Virtually all of the information in this post is derived from Judith Herman’s seminal and powerful book, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992). ]

Traumatic events and their effects upon individual and communal life share much in common with the grievous losses that attend all human lives.  But trauma also differs from those widely-experienced losses in both definition and degree.

Traumatic events encompass a wide range of experiences from a single overwhelming event to prolonged and repeated abuse.  They are characterized by “threats to life or bodily integrity, or close personal encounter with violence or death,” either to oneself or to a loved one.  Such events “confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror” and force upon their victims “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and the threat of annihilation.”  (Trauma 3,33)

Traumatized persons lose their trust in themselves, in other people, and in God.

The experience of terrorized violence betrays and destroys a person’s fundamental assumptions regarding “the human and divine systems of protection that sustain life,” and in doing so, tears asunder the foundations of his or her world. “In situations of terror, people spontaneously seek their first source of comfort and protection.  Wounded soldiers and raped women cry for their mothers, or for God.  When this cry is not answered, the sense of basic trust — the foundation of belief in the continuity of life, the order of nature, and the transcendent order of the divine — is shattered.”  The traumatized person feels cast out of the “systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning.”  (Trauma 51-52, 33)  Victims of traumatic events are thus plunged into a state of existential crisis:  they “lose their trust in themselves, in other people, and in God.” (Trauma 56)

Healthy self-love, caring and trusting relationships with others, and belief in a meaningful order of creation are all casualties of violence.  Trauma “shames and stigmatizes”; its victims are prisoners of feelings of utter disconnection, worthlessness, powerlessness and pointlessness.  (Trauma 133, 197, 214)

The path to recovery is marked by new self-esteem, restored relationships, and a sustaining faith.

Although the experience of trauma can never be erased from one’s life, those who have undergone trauma can undertake a journey of healing, and most can “regain the world they have lost.”  Recovery from trauma transforms a dehumanized victim into an empowered and reconnected survivor.  The recovery process generally follows a three-stage path: establishing safety for the person who has experienced trauma; empowering that person to tell his or her story; and reestablishing the person’s healthy and life-giving connections.   In the last stage of recovery, the survivor rebuilds the foundations of his/her life that were lost to trauma: s/he develops “a new self,” “new relationships,” and a “sustaining faith.”  Relationship and community are essential to recovery:  through renewed loving and supportive relationships with others, victims learn to shed their trauma-induced stigmatized identity and reconstruct their damaged capacities for trust, autonomy, identity and intimacy.  Through experiences of love, imagination and restorative reinterpretation, they find a new set of assumptions about “meaning, order and justice in the world.”  Recovery is achieved when (among other things) the person’s self-esteem is restored, their important relationships are reestablished, and “a coherent system of meaning and belief that encompasses the story of the trauma” is affirmed. (Trauma 3, 133, 155, 178-9, 181, 194, 196-7, 214)

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