The Panorama of Trauma
“Our fears, insecurities and reactions are all reflection and collection of a long unresolved conflict”.
The worst thing to happen to someone is a traumatic experience because it can change us forever. The earlier these traumatic experiences happen in our lives, the longer and the deeper impact there is. In life, nothing happens in isolation but in a quite traceable connection. The traumatic experiences will go on influencing our lives in almost all aspects. Just like a panorama effect in photography which allows the photographer to capture different pictures in the same setting, allowing us to view almost the whole situation. Similarly trauma will affect many aspects of people who have experienced traumatic episodes.
I would like quote few examples of how trauma influenced people's lives in a way which would not have been easily understood by people not suffering the same crisis. Many of the examples are from Australia as the country has diverse multicultural population. Some of the inhabitants come from the countries struck by poverty, war, political instabilities which may serve to explain panoramic effect of trauma.
1.Hiding under the tables:
One of my friends in Australia told that her friend was teaching Bosnian children in school. If there was any event in which fighter planes participated for air show, the students from Bosnia would hide under the class tables. The teachers could not understand initially why these students were hiding under the tables upon hearing the sound of planes. Upon asking, the students told that the sound of planes was a signal that they were going to be bombed, so it indicated an intense threat to their lives.
2. Birthday celebration of a Somalian child:
It is taken from a clinical case from my course in which a speech pathologist is seeing a family who came from Somalia. The 4 year old boy has his birthday coming in few days. One of the recommendations which the speech pathologist makes is not to have balloons on the birthday. Personally I could never imagine a birthday without balloons. Even the last birthday that I celebrated in Islamabad, Pakistan, I had balloons tied to my car as I drove to the hotel to celebrate it. It is so symbolic for me. But the reason why this speech pathologist came up was that the bursting sound of the balloon may trigger the memories of war in Somalia and may make the child feel insecure and may hinder the family’s settling in Australia.
3. Busts in Australia:
Outside University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia, there are busts portraying important people in Australian history and culture. As these are not proper statues but only limited to shoulders, it reminds me of the images shown in newspapers and TV where slaughtering of people is shown. In Pakistan, the area where Malala Yousafzai comes from, the TV showed documentary of how hard things were before Pakistan army cleared the area of people who were disrupting the peace and security of that place. The documentary had images of people's heads being separated from the body and hanged to poles in public places with messages that anyone who helped America would have same fate. It was such a disturbing sight for me. Those images used to re-run in my mind every time I looked at these busts. If you ever saw me walking there, my head was turned to extreme right as these busts were on the left side. I was sharing my feelings to an Australian friend and said its such a disrespectful way of honouring someone and she said 'No, its very respectable for us'. Then I realized that as our experiences are different, our perceptions are different about the same thing.
4. Too heavy makeup:
One Indian student that I met in university used to wear heavy make up. While I never have problem with what anyone does to make themselves look good but there was too much powder on her face that it looked out of proportion. After ignoring for many weeks, I once gathered courage and asked her that if she has changed the way she would dress in India as opposed to in Australia. She started telling me about the changes she made. One of the things she told me was that she uses now more make up to be acceptable in society as she was conscious that her skin was not that white and people would treat her badly if she did not try to lighten the color of the skin. It was then when I learned that what I was finding bit away from my standards of normal, for her, this make up was giving her the confidence she probably needed to interact in the society.
Avoid making fun and being judgmental:
We never know the real reasons why people behave in certain ways until we do not give up our judgmental thinking and think that even though these people may not face those acute threatening situations anymore, still they are so unfriendly and unhappy. Think beyond. It might be that the trigger, the link, the impact of that trauma is still haunting and daunting them just like I used to be haunted by those busts. No one would imagine why I preferred to look in opposite direction for weeks and months till one day I went and stood next to the bust I was least scared of, touched it, took many of photographs of that particular busts and felt bit comfortable (desensitisation therapy).
Managing it well:
It is important to be aware of the panoramic effect. If you see someone reacting differently or in a more exaggerated way than you would have expected otherwise, there is a likelihood of a background crisis which pressurizes such people to behave the way they do. For such people, learning to trust new people, handling relationships, acting confidently and jolly might take considerable effort. Once the source or sources of trauma are identified by listening to their concerns and feelings, it becomes easy to understand what might aggravate or precipitate crisis for such people. One important thing to be mindful about is that for everyone their own fears, concerns and insecurities are important and probably something which they may think very important for survival and eventually their life. Refer back to all the four examples quoted in this article, how everyone seems to go in a survival mode turning on their fear, flight or fright reaction. Hence ridiculing anyone when they share their fears and concerns or telling them that it is not a big deal will never resolve the issue. No matter how much time may elapse until the healing has not occurred, the panoramic effect of trauma would still be evident in their lives and will impact everyone who interacts with them.
Making such people believe that they are safe, that you understand why they feel this way, being empathetic, listening to their stories and preventing giving advices and suggestions till the time you assess that they are receptive to listen to you; because there is strong urge to convince other person that what they are feeling or perceiving is a serious thing, suggesting desensitisation, gradual exposure to things that aggravate the crisis, taking time off to rest and relax to prevent stress from building up, learning grounding strategies such as touching the walls or pressing feet against ground to prevent one from feeling alone, incorporating very carefully some element of fun and suggesting to seek a therapist help can be very useful. Just being aware of the fact that some incident is causing the stress reaction often helps. Gradually people often learn to recognize that the mind is trying to link the present with the past and can limit the stress from building up and use their stress managing strategies to diffuse away the potentially critical situation. The panoramic effect will disappear gradually but before disappearing fully, may make many comebacks depending on what may refresh the traumatic memory.
Written by Dr. Muhammad Wasif Haq, Adelaide, Australia.
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