Brian (not his real name) closed the door of the aircraft and gently guided the walkway back toward the airport. Although he had been working at the airport for five years, he had no warning of what was to follow. With temperatures below freezing, the plane had to be de-iced before leaving the bay. The airplane waited a long-time for its turn to take off. When it the tower finally gave signal to take off, the plane’s engines revved, systems froze and the plane crashed. Forty of its sixty passengers died.

As one of the first responders at the scene of the crash, Brian told me how he offered his coat to passengers whose clothes had been blown off. Later, he took families to the morgue to identify bodies and helped a passenger to get new glasses after his were destroyed in the crash. The award the airline presented to Brian did not assuage the trauma symptoms, nor did the short-term therapy offered by the airline company begin to address his reactions to all the horror he had witnessed. It took five years to not get teary suddenly each time he thought of the accident. Even a shift to doing office work for the company did not help ease his anxiety and nightmares. At the time of the crash thirty years ago, Brian had to “deal with it” on his own.

Why Traumatic Events Can be Big

Traumatic events overwhelm the nervous system and cause the body functions that are beyond our control to go on the blink. This is a big deal!

When we are responding from traumatic stress no longer are we able to move easily between all the things our body does to help us rest and all the things that the body does to get us ready for action. For example, if our nervous system clamps down on our ability to rest, our bodies do a nosedive. We become exhausted or numb; our blood pressure and heart rate drop; digestion problems develop; and our ability to fight off disease weakens. Mentally, we can become depressed, loose interest in relationships and, through dissociation, the environment appears not quite real to us.

On the other hand, the parts of us that get us ready for action can get revved up. When this happens, heart rate increases; breathing becomes difficult; muscles tighten; and the skin tingles. Sleeping or relaxing becomes difficult. Emotionally, we anger easily or become on-guard with the smallest provocation, and we panic or worry easily.

At times, the nervous system becomes so stressed that we bounce between feeling collapsed and revved. For example, depression may hang out under anxiety and we alternate between constipation and diarrhea.

If traumatic events can affect the nervous system so profoundly, what keeps us from not reaching out for help?

7 Reasons Why We May Not Seek Help After a Traumatic Event

1. We may not think that what happened to us was traumatic. This is a very common response. After something serious happens, we may dissociate, i.e. feel little physical pain, think it didn’t really happen, or be cut off emotionally from our terror. Dissociation is natural and in many ways a good thing. It can keep us from freaking out when we need to give a report to the police, make family meals, or go to work. The protection the dissociated state offers, however, us can lead us to believe, “I’m just fine” and keep us from appreciating just how much we have been seriously affected by the event.

2. We may have chosen to participate in something that we believe will benefit from us, such asa needed medical procedure, and not know that it could also be traumatic. While the bones may have been reset or that the C-section helped the baby to be born, our nervous systems can be negatively impacted by the anesthesia or the less-than-supportive professionals or family whom we encountered along the way. We may not stop to consider that our nervous system could get overwhelmed even as we benefit from some procedure.

3. When we compare our traumatic stress with those of others, our stress seems minor and not deserving of much attention. We may minimize the effect of the fender bender or the fall off the curb. We tell ourselves that what happened is nothing compared to someone who was almost killed or became paralyzed after an accident. Because each of us has a different point of overwhelm, what may be not traumatic to one may indeed be traumatic to another.

4. As adults, we regard the abuse or neglect we experienced as children as having happened “so long ago” so that it could not still have an effect on us. We also tell ourselves that childhood events, including birth difficulties, which we may not recall, are things of the past. “Children forget these things,” we tell ourselves. We now know that the body does indeed have the capacity to remember, even if we don’t have the words to describe what happened. Symptoms associated with childhood stress can lie dormant for a long time then suddenly appear. When they appear out of the blue, we may not take them seriously or connect them to anything in our childhood.

5. Even if we do remember what happened, whatever the source of the trauma, we may still prefer to deal with things solo. We make this choice if, when we tell someone about the traumatic event, they respond with their own fear. Our story is too much for them to absorb and they also are traumatized. Their fear, in turn, leaves us feeling more anxious. As a result, we decide not to take the risk of hurting others and we keep quiet to also protect ourself from feeling even more anxious or depressed.

6. Somewhere along the way, we have lost trust that others could offer competent help. Responses to trauma often get linked to one another. If we experienced situations in the past when we did not have adequate protection or support, it is easy to generalize that we will not be helped again. This is common because one of the main effects of traumatic stress is to inhibit our ability to see our current situation clearly; instead, we tend to live as though the past is still occurring. We are not able to see that there really is competent help available so we prefer to manage things on our own.

7. Our culture, including military life, expects us to go on, no matter what. We live in a culture that expects us to be tough, to produce and to override physical and emotional pain. Reaching out for help can bring shaming remarks, a sense of feeling like failure or being broken. Admitting to being overwhelmed and compromised in our ability to perform can scare us and those around us. We would rather manage on our own.

Copyright 2008

Author's Bio: 

Maggie combines her technical medical knowledge, over 18 years of experience as a massage therapist and body-centered psychotherapist and over 25 years as an adult educator to provide a solid foundation for her work.

Holding a Masters of Arts degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy from Naropa University, Maggie is a licensed professional counselor and adjunct faculty member at Naropa University. She is a graduate of the Hakomi Institute and of Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing© trauma training. Maggie is a member of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation.