WORDS BY DR SARAH WAYLAND
Trauma has a way of binding people together with shared experiences. It helps them to shape how they make meaning from their lives, in an effort to find peace from what has happened. So how can we understand healing and trauma from both the perspective of the person who experiences it, and those interconnected through family or community?
Traumas, as well as exposure to traumatic experiences, are part of many people’s lives. According to a New Zealand Health Survey, more than six per cent of NZ adults have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder – including post-traumatic stress disorder. There are a variety of different events in a person’s life that may be considered traumatic. Trauma can include natural and man-made disasters, psychological and physical traumas, acts of deliberate violence, and even events that can be culturally or spiritually violent or distressing.
Dr Judith Herman, a Harvard-based researcher and psychiatrist, defines trauma as “events [that] involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence and death. They confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror, and evoke the response of catastrophe”. As a community we are also exposed to the traumas of others who are not known to us, through the broadcasting and sharing of news in mainstream media and social media. These events also have the capacity to injure us as well as those around us.
Irrespective of these definitions, trauma can sometimes be judged by the community – the people will decide whether an event is serious enough to make a lasting impact. Yet despite the awareness of trauma and its effects, there is still a commonly held view that people will be only momentarily impacted – and that, over time, the pain will diminish. Our conversations about trauma often sit on a linear, straightforward path.
The general idea is that if something occurs, we may take time to process that trauma, but eventually our life will return to normal. However, research – such as that published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information article, ‘Understanding the Impact of Trauma’, tells a different story.
We can now see that trauma – regardless of when it occurs and, in some circumstances, of whether it happens directly to us – can have long-lasting impacts. The ripple effect touches who we are, how we parent, our family and friends, and the community around us. So a shift in conversation is required, one that identifies a traumatic event as not just a moment in time but a life event that can shape who we are and what we value – for better and worse.
The long-reaching effects
Trauma rarely has one victim. When professionals first intervene following a traumatic event, the focus is usually on the person who was exposed to the trauma. But we must not lose sight of the fact that living with, or growing up alongside, that traumatised person can also be profoundly impactful.
Donna Jackson Nakazawa, a campaigner who raises awareness of childhood trauma and healing, speaks in her book, Childhood Disrupted, of the sudden loss of her father at the age of 12 – and the chronic physical illnesses that she endured for decades afterwards.
Nakazawa explains that it wasn’t until she was 51 that a doctor finally asked her about the childhood traumas she experienced as a way of understanding how she might heal. Trauma can shape the way that relationships progress, how conflict is managed within families and even how successive generations respond to life events.
Making meaning from trauma
The language around trauma is often negative. We speak of disorders from surviving trauma, about difficulties in sustaining relationships, and triggers that might shape the way a person engages with their community.
However, there is also scope for post-traumatic growth. This growth is often seen through people pausing and reflecting on what has occurred to them, and seeking opportunities to learn from how they are reacting. Employing a mindset that focuses on growth rather than fixating on fear and anger can provide a chance to make meaning from what has occurred.
We see this around the globe when communities seek out new ways to become resilient following traumatic events. With the March 2019 terror attack in Christchurch, community initiatives that symbolised connectedness emerged straight after the attack. We saw images of peace and solidarity throughout the world – of women wearing head scarves, rallies against racism, and people standing together in silence to show support. In these ways, where growth comes from trauma, communities continue to acknowledge the loss but also speak about how they might move forwards from what has occurred.
The threads of trauma passed down from generation to generation can alter the stories of communities as well as families. They bruise and wound people – but they also offer a chance to reflect on ways of healing, understanding values, and reclaiming a new sense of self.