5 minute read

I got here by accident

Coping with Trauma Series

By Dr. Anna M. van Heeckeren, Founder of One Health Organization

Content warning. This article may remind people of their own traumatic events. In writing this article, the author intends to help people understand how trauma can negatively impact those who've experienced different kinds of trauma. Also, she generally addresses what she did not find helpful for her and what is helping her cope with the trauma she experienced over her lifetime. Other's experiences and what is helpful will vary.

This week in February marks the anniversary of a near fatal car accident I was in 24 years ago when I was a senior in veterinary school. The title of this post, "I got here by accident" refers to the fact that if that car accident never happened, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today. I wouldn't have met the man I married or have my two children with him. I wouldn't have founded One Health Organization to help others. I wouldn't be writing this post for you. It literally changed the course of my life. It's an event I sometimes call "the best worst thing that ever happened to me." Over time, I'll let you know all the reasons why. Not today.

My therapist told me I needed to take special care of myself this month. Why? Because while my physical injuries from that car accident have largely faded to physical scars, the emotional and psychological scars still exist. It's called post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was surprised to learn this because previously I associated PTSD only with people who've been in combat like some military personnel; I never served in the armed forces.

I know I'm not the only one who's experienced trauma. I assume nearly everyone has experienced some kind of traumatic event in their lives; I assume you do if you're reading this. Your experiences and reactions (which I will refer to as "survival mode") or responses (which I will refer to as "mindful mode") to those experiences will likely differ from mine. What may differ from many is that my car accident was not the only seriously traumatic event I experienced before then or after then. I've experienced more traumatic events than most, according to my therapist. Now in my 50's, I'm only beginning to fully understand the impact these events have played in my life and how to manage the impact these multiple traumatic events have on my health.

I know what it means to experience both physical and emotional trauma. I know what I've tried to help me cope with my traumatic life experiences and their impact on my health. I do know that my tendency is to help others before I help myself, at the risk of my personal health. I do know that my life experiences allow me to have a better understanding of others. Now I'm practicing how to respond in a mindful mode rather than react than in survival mode, where possible, and how to be empathetic and compassionate without risking my own overall health. By sharing my story, perhaps you can better understand your own trauma or that of others around you. And maybe, I can help others like you (or people you know) get the help you need to cope with whatever life throws your way.

Probably the two biggest things on my mind today is that people who've experienced trauma can get "triggered" and telling someone to "get over it" is not helpful. While I've been successful in managing my life most of the time, I have many moments where I can get "triggered."

Side note: Because I was curious, I looked for a definition of the word "trigger" on the internet and found this: 

"...the word “trigger” relies on and evokes violent weaponry imagery. This could be re-traumatizing for folks who have suffered military, police, and other forms of violence."

Thankfully, I've never experienced trauma that involves a gun. Now that I've been sensitized to this concept, I will do my best to start any post like this with the words "content warning" and to use the word "triggered" sparingly, if at all. 

Oops. I got distracted by my curiosity. Getting back on track...

Those who cause me to remember traumatic events (whether I realize it or not), usually do or say things that have nothing to do with me. I didn't always appreciate that; perhaps it was my ego that told me that everything must revolve around me. Now I realize that when I'm reminded of my traumatic events, I can recognize that their actions aren't about me. And that I may expect my usual productivity to go down and that I may not easily "snap out of it."

Many times, people (even well-meaning doctors) tell me I needed to "get over it." The biggest "it" being my car accident when I would tell them about it (and probably any other accidents I experienced to that point). It's easy to say "get over it" but it's not easy to do without professional support and guidance. To tell you the truth, I don't think it's 100% possible for me to "get over" my car accident. I do need better coping habits when I'm reminded of my traumatic events, though. I've learned that when people say that I need to "get over it" they may be uncomfortable with the topic. What they probably don't realize is that they are invalidating my experience, my feelings, my emotions, etc. when they say that. That, in and of itself, can be traumatic.

I learned that if it takes me more than 20 minutes to calm down after an event that interferes with daily life, then it's time to talk with my therapist about the event, what my body was feeling at the time and when I'm talking about it with her, what other memories it brings to the surface, how I reacted the way I did, and to name the emotion(s) I experienced. The reason for doing this is so I can better cope with the next event I may experience. So that I may respond (i.e. go into mindful mode) rather than react (i.e. go into survival mode). I'll explain what those terms mean in a later post.

For those who are curious, I'm "happy" to share more of my story. Now's not the time. Now's my time to reflect on what my body is feeling, to reflect on why my body might be feeling that way, and to name the emotions tied to those feelings. The reason why it's important is because once I do, my mind can be free to connect with the people (and pets) around me and help the people and pets we serve through volunteers and donors of One Health Organization.

For those who aren't curious, simply know that traumatic events can play a huge role in impacting someone's life. Sometimes for the rest of their life; in little ways and in bigger ways. Be sensitive to their emotional state; there's no need to tiptoe around. But please, don't tell them to "get over it" or call them names implying that they're weak. Simply be aware that some may be particularly sensitive to certain traumatic memories, especially leading up to the anniversary of that date. It can at least explain some behaviors that don't seem typical. It does not, however, excuse bad or illegal behavior. And it most likely has nothing to do with you.

As for the rest of my story, it's continuing to unfold. I'm ready to open my door of vulnerability to those who wish to learn through my experiences.

Warm wishes of One Health wellness,

PS: Have you ever had someone tell you that you needed to "get over" a traumatic event you experienced? We hope you feel comfortable sharing your story and learning how you've managed to cope (or not cope) after that event.

Disclaimer: No mental health advice is being provided for others. If you or someone you know is having trouble coping with a traumatic event, we suggest you contact a doctor or mental health professional for assistance. We make no guarantees that the person you reach will be the best fit for you. For some, talking to loved ones, friends, or a spiritual advisor may offer comfort.