The aftermath of trauma is often even more devastating and debilitating than the trauma itself. Trauma is not a story about the past. It lives in the present – in both the mind and body. Left untreated, it has no expiration date.
After being held captive for three weeks, California mother of three, Sherri Papini, was found covered in bruises and burns and chained at the waist and wrists. Now what?
Subsequently, the dialogue in the media has ranged from disbelief, to doubt, and finally hovering on the perpetrators of the violent act. The important question is what happens now? How do Sherri Papini and her family recover from this horrible experience? Where should the conversation begin?
Understandably, talking about trauma is tricky for numerous reasons. It is likely that Sherri, similar to many trauma survivors, will go through the trials and tribulations, the dark and thorny places, and experience cycles of flashbacks, anxiety, panic, rage, depression, hopelessness, shame, emotional and physical withdrawal, a barrage of external and internal triggers, and more.
The Role of Family and Friends
Exposure to and the experience of trauma has been a part of the human condition since we evolved as a species, but there continues to be a societal paralysis in both the understanding and conversation following human trauma and community violence.
The lasso of trauma not only impacts the survivor, but their roles and relationships: spouse/partner, parent-child, sibling, extended family and kinship, and the family as a whole. Often family and friends don’t fully understand “what happens next” or know how to create a conversation with survivors about her/his needs and provide the safe space for their pain and suffering (mental & physical) to be seen. What’s important now for Sherri Papini and her family is to practice patience, understanding, compassion, and allow ample time and space for healing and grief. As part of the supportive network, family and friends can:
1. Educate themselves about PTSD and the aftermath of trauma
2. Plan for crisis situations – seek help if the survivor is suicidal
3. Trauma is complex! Never minimize or invalidate a survivor’s traumatic experiences by simply saying they will get over it
4. Accept there may be changes in the relationships as “everyone” navigates through the healing process
5. Let go of the impulse to give advice – the act of listening attentively is powerful
6. Anticipate and manage not only the survivor’s triggers, but yours as well
7. Acknowledge the survivor’s strengths and ability to survive – in Sherri’s case – escape
8. Prioritize self-care and seek outside professional support, including cultural and spiritual healing
The Role of Mind/Body Therapy
As a clinical psychologist whose practice is centered on the mind-body healing of trauma, I believe true recovery involves engaging the entire organism. I would recommend body-based practices – not solely for Sherri Papini, but the entire Papini family will need a combination of talk therapy and yoga or meditation to soothe the body and brain while processing the trauma they “all” experienced.
It is important for family and loved ones to understand that the memory of trauma leaves a biological imprint within the body and recalibrates the nervous system – literally rearranges the brain’s wiring! Research has shown that yoga/medication has proven (via brain imaging/PET scans) to effectively combat the debilitating symptoms of trauma. Why? Trauma survivors often physically self-numb, blocking off unwanted sensory experiences. Yoga is fantastic in regaining a connection – becoming attuned to body and emotional sensations – for Sherri, slowly becoming unglued from a helpless state of horror.
While pain does not fly away and the journey towards recovery won’t be easy for Sherri and her family, there is hope and life after trauma.