Part of my counseling involves working with combat veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Both culturally and medically, we have long seen PTSD as arising from a single, identifiable disruption. You witness a shattering event, or fall victim to it — and as the poet Walter de la Mare put it, “The human brain works slowly: first the blow, hours afterward the bruise.” The world returns more or less to normal, but you do not.
In 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defined trauma as, “A recognizable stressor that would evoke significant symptoms of distress in almost everyone” — universally toxic, like a poison. But it turns out that most trauma victims — even survivors of combat, torture or concentration camps — rebound to live full, normal lives. That has given rise to a more nuanced view of trauma — less a poison than an infectious agent, a challenge that most people overcome but that may defeat those weakened by past traumas, genetics or other factors.
Now, a significant body of work suggests that even this view is too narrow — that the environment just after the event, particularly other people’s responses, may be just as crucial as the event itself. As the people of Newtown, Connecticut recovers from the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary they will need continued support throughout this year and many years to come. Veterans that have faced combat need the same kind of community support. A community that shows empathy and gives encouragement is vital to any trauma recovery.
We can’t undo bad things that happen. But maybe we can reshape the environment that exists in their wake. Do your part and give your time and a listen to someone who is hurting. You don’t need to solve their problem or fix anything. The best gift you can give is your listening ear.
Portions of this article are taken from A New Focus on the ‘Post’ in Post-Traumatic Stress by David Dobbs.