Information for persons having experienced a traumatic incident

You may read or listen to this information because you possibly experienced incidents which were extremely painful or threatening either on your way over here or already in your native country. You might have experienced extreme insecurity or your life might have been threatened, perhaps you lost someone very close to you. You succeeded to stay alive and that extreme experience is haunting you. Your body and mind are reacting with symptoms which you cannot possibly explain to yourself.

You may feel different and don’t understand yourself anymore. Maybe you feel sad or notice a lack of energy, feel tense, irritable or aggressive. You may have anxieties or feelings of guilt, or you cannot feel anything at all. Maybe you have sleeping disorders, nightmares or feel „haunted“ by the things you went through, have recurring images of them.

However, at first these symptoms are a normal reaction triggered by an extremely unsafe life situation or they are triggered by violence either witnessed or experienced. It shows that your mind tries to help itself by setting up an “emergency program”.

You can also download or print the following text here:

For persons affected by trauma: Information and self-help (pdf)

What is a trauma?

A life threatening, uncontrollable event is called trauma. Natural catastrophes or a heavy blow of fate as well as war ordeals, deliberate bodily violence and sexual attacks – all these are traumatic events. Traumata deliberately caused by other human beings are more difficult to cope with. It’s the most devastating experience a person can make.

Such an experience is a catastrophe for most people. Their body and mind react towards such an extreme situation and they feel sick. This is a normal reaction of body and mind towards the abnormal incidents which took place around them.

The result of a traumatic experience is varying between human beings and not everyone is getting sick. Whether and how someone recovers from a traumatic experience depends on his/her social surroundings, on friends, relatives and life-conditions. Naturally it also depends upon the fact whether he or she is finally safe. In each case the process of convalescence and getting well again is requiring time.

How is our body reacting in case of trauma?

Trauma does to human beings what stress does too. During human development structures have been built up which spring into life in an emergency situation. They are called stress reactions. Once they are triggered they proceed automatically: Our brain is pouring out hormones (e.g. adrenalin) and our body as well as our senses are being put on the alert. This is safeguarding the survival of a human being.

The body is reacting instinctively: Heart rate is getting faster, blood pressure is rising, muscles are getting tighter, a reflex is narrowing the pupils and all senses are on standby. The human being is prepared for three possible reactions:

  1. to fight and to possibly overwhelm the opponent or enemy
  2. to flee in order to escape the danger
  3. to freeze if fight und flight seem impossible

In case the situation which brought the tension is staying on, the reaction of our stress system is changing: Body’s own opiate are set free, intensity of pain sensation is getting less, blood pressure and heart rate are reduced, the musculature is flagging. It all leads to some sort of emotional numbness so that one does not quite consciously experience something unbearable. Consequently, everything which happens during torpidity is not properly kept in mind. Sequence of action, emotions, thoughts and body sensations cannot be remembered in context with what happened.

However, strong and/or long lasting strain is causing our stress reactions also to last longer than it was naturally intended to last. This again is leading to permanently increased stress hormones.
Acting, emotions, thoughts and body sensations connected to the traumatic experience are stored in different parts of our brain. The increased stress hormones prevent that these different parts are properly working together. Without connection between the actual happening and the actual emotions during this happening it is impossible for the brain to tie these two things together. Therefore the person concerned is unable to come to the conclusion:” It is finished. I did survive.” (Although they know that it is over they cannot feel that it is actually finished).

Which symptoms can show up with a trauma?

As long as the trauma has not been successfully processed in mind typical trauma symptoms are reappearing:

  1. Symptoms of increased agitation: sleeping problems, nightmares, increased heartbeat, the persons affected are jumpy, uneasy and short tempered. The reason for this is that the body is still producing adrenalin. This is done because the trauma has not yet been processed. Our survival system misinterprets the situation as still being dangerous – although this is not true. The body has not yet understood that distress has come to an end.
  2. Acts of avoidance: To relive a trauma again and again is an extreme burden. Therefore, many persons affected try to control their memory by avoiding everything reminding them of the traumatic incident, e.g. people, crowds, certain locations or thoughts, smells, noises, pain or other body sensations as well as clothing or particular clothes which are tied to the trauma in question.
  3. Continuing tormenting trauma memory: In such cases scenes out of traumatic experience are envisaged movie-like again and again. This can happen while one is awake as well as while one is asleep (nightmare). Next to pictures smells, noises, pain or other body sensations, can pop up. A particularly intensive way of reliving traumata are the so called flash backs. Frequently these often flash up all of a sudden and reliving the situation is vivid and is accompanied by very strong emotions. It feels as if the traumatic situation has to be lived through again. This is not only irksome but can also be very frightening.

The intense reaction of a person has not only to do with the intensity of the trauma itself. The extent of reaction is depending on how much someone felt unable to cope with the traumatic event. It also depends on how unexpected it came and whether loss of control was felt strongly. It is also important how much assistance a person gets after a trauma. No one can predict exactly whether a person can cope with a trauma on her or his own.

  • Advice: In case you are still fighting with your trauma after 6 months and in case you suffer from symptoms as described above it is possible that you might need assistance. It is not your fault! For this you probably need expert help. Treatment in this case would be a combination of psychotherapy and medication. As soon as you have a chance please call on a psychiatrist or psychological expert who are experienced on trauma therapies. Be aware that you probably will be wait-listed, which may take quite some time. For this very reason this home page offers you possibilities to help yourself. By doing the exercises you assist your body and mind to recover.

Advice and support to help yourself

  1. Take care to have a regular body workout. Workouts help to reduce stress hormones which cause tension of your body.
  2. If you are frightened concentrate on your body. Put your attention on a certain part of your body (no matter which part), concentrate and watch it.
  3. Establish your personal list of resources. Resources are sources of power. Your personal talents, your abilities, hobbies, your family and friends, anything which does you good belongs on this list.
  4. In case part of your trauma comes  back to you (in case of a flash back) please act as described
     
    say to yourself:

    At the moment I feel (panicky, frightened – describe your present emotions) and I can feel my body (my heart is bumping, my pulse is accelerating, may legs feel weak and numb – name at least three sensations), because I remember (name the trauma – however, no details like e.g. when and where the bombs came down).

    At the same time I look around and notice where I am right now: in which year (name the actual date), I am here at (name the place where you are just now staying, e.g. Solingen) and I am looking at (describe some of the things which you can see now at this place, e.g. a plant, a house, my children) and therefore I know, that this (name the trauma, no details, nothing else) is not happening any longer! I am secure and safe.
  5. Use your imagination! We are able to imagine things or to picture things and to feel good. Brain research has proven that imagination forms and influences our brain in nearly the same way as actual experience does. On our homepage refugee-trauma.help, chapter “self-support” you will find assistance and imagination advice to get well again.
  6. When bad memory is haunting you and you are unable to stop thinking about awful things which have happened it probably might help to keep your brain occupied with other things:

    Sometimes it helps to change your sitting or lying position, or to move from one room into another (in order to bring your body into a different position your brain has to work very hard) or to talk to other people about something entirely different.

    One can concentrate on nice memory or on something which regularly took place during your daily life or daily work. The corresponding details could be told to someone who only exists in your imagination. Or you keep your brain occupied with strenuous things: To solve arithmetic problems or sums, to play chess, concentration games for computer or cell phone.

    Use all senses to draw your attention into presence. Eat or drink, smell e.g. flowers or coffee and any other pleasant smell. Name objects in your surroundings. Name noises you can hear.
    Drawing books (e.g. mandalas) require your full attention and they do help many people to become fully aware of reality.
  7. It is not always a good idea to speak about and to explain in detail awful things which might have happened to you. Today we know that it requires an enormous amount of inner strength to exactly remember bad things. Therefore do not talk about it until you do not feel strong enough for it. Let no one questioning you! (You are allowed to say “no” if someone is asking for it!)
  8. Knowing that there are still many goodies and joyful things in life besides terrible happenings does help many people. Try to imagine this again and again.
  9. Do something you love to do! Talk to them about daily happenings and sorrows. Laugh together and exchange good news and daily matters with them.
  10. Contact other people. Sprechen Sie mit ihnen, auch über Ihre alltäglichen Sorgen. Lachen Sie mit ihnen, tauschen Sie sich aus.
  11. Say “yes” to your life. Nobody can change what has happened but you can help yourself to take your part in life again.

The following exercises have helped many people in a similar situation to feel, at least, a little better and have increased their ability to act.
If possible, read the exercises first to decide which ones may be helpful to you. Once you have selected one or two, repeat those regularly. Some people experience a quick and perceptible relief, others will have to keep repeating them regularly for extended periods of time.

Free download of text and audio exercises

Relaxation exercises (Nawa/pdf)
Audio Files/Nawa and Michaela Huber