Blinded by Tragedy
Updated: May 25, 2020
Vicki L. Loyer, Ph.D., LMFT
First published in the Desert Leaf December 2017 In less time that it takes to snap a selfie you experience a horrifying event in which you feel completely helpless and believe that you and/or your loved one is going to die. Despite experiencing the same event, some people will move beyond (and sometimes above) the crisis, while others will become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety and involuntarily continue to experience the trauma, with intrusive thoughts, avoidant behaviors, and mood and personality changes.
First Things First
Becoming blinded by tragedy is a natural human response to that which is too horrifying to take in immediately: the death of a child, the murder of a loved one, the loss of a job, the onset of a fatal illness, an act of terrorism. Short term denial is seen as healthy and essential to the brain’s reprogramming from acute crisis. Tragedy is complex. The human instinct for fight, flight, or freeze engages, and primal fear is encoded in the victim’s brain. The brain becomes “emotionally hijacked,” creating a pattern of lifesaving behaviors that are resistant to change.
People experiencing the same crisis stimuli differ in how long the blindness lasts and what lens they use to see the world when the blindness clears. The effect of a tragic event on your lens is influenced by your world view, a personally constructed life story that explains to you what has happened in your life and why. This view feeds upon ongoing stresses and crises to develop its plot. The theme of your story secures your confidence in the controllability of events, comprehensibility, and predictability of people; trustworthiness and goodness of people; and safety of the world. When your safe and predictable world view is shattered, you are vulnerable to experiencing the most devastating outcomes.
Prepping for the Big Race
Not surprisingly, managing stress is quite similar to running marathons. You are more likely to be successful if you have had time to rest and heal between marathons. When your stressor is acute, you might then come into the trauma rested and well adjusted. Past stressors are integrated into your world view such that you believe in benevolent others and human goodness. Without time to cognitively reassess a trauma prior to the onset of the next trauma, the experience is stored in your fear-based brain.
Everyone faces challenges in his or her life, but overcoming major hurdles such as chronic illness (one’s own or a loved one’s); chronic financial difficulties; a living space with unrelenting noise (living near train tracks, many children in the household); threat of danger (inherently dangerous occupations, living in a war zone or a crime ridden neighborhood) requires coping from an already exhausted system. An exhausted system cannot secure a positive world view from a fear-based brain.
Create a habit of framing life events in stressful non-consequential areas, in a cognitively healthy way to build a positive world view. For example, when someone scowls at you, assume they are in pain. When you break a glass, decide that glasses can be replaced. When a spouse tracks dirt in the house, decide that it is not your dirt to worry about. I use “when” because these are common issues in most of our lives. Although these things may be frustrating, how we perceive them is what creates our consequence. A positive overriding world view becomes protective. If you say “today is an awful day,” it will be an awful day. Instead, say “I am grateful for the past experiences I’ve had that make me ready to tackle these challenges,” and you will be grateful and well prepared. For those who just read that sentence and have doubt, change that statement to “I’m glad that I have run three-quarter miles regularly so that this half-mile run is easy.” The world view requires muscle memory and strength conditioning.
Try the following seven everyday practices to help integrate strength into your personal story and decrease your vulnerability to the effects of trauma in your life:
Frame the event in terms of what is within your control: “I am a good driver. I managed the situation the best I could.”
Decide on the part of the trauma that was situational, and place it outside yourself: “I have driven that road a multitude of times without any trouble.”
Do not allow negativity to permeate your story. Change “I can’t go on” to “I am going on.”
Locate strength in each sentence of helplessness: “I knew I couldn’t manage, and I asked for help.”
Find the exception in each memory of horror: “I survived by disassociating my thoughts and feelings from what was happening.”
Create clarity where the situation is ambiguous. “It was an accident, which means that no one planned to hit me and total my car.”
Find your choices: “I can decide to take another route, and I can decide to be more vigilant.”