Why does meaning need to be rebuilt after trauma?
Trauma exists when people experience an event that is so shattering, it does two things. First, it violently shakes people out of their conventions and their comfort zones, and forces a reconsideration of the important questions in life. Second, trauma violates one or more fundamental assumptions about life. These fundamental assumptions are:
- That the world is a benevolent and safe place,
- That justice and fairness prevail, and
- That I am a worthwhile person.
In the wake of trauma, when these fundamental assumptions can no longer be taken for granted, people struggle to accomplish a return to their previous meanings. As an example, a victim of a violent crime may no longer be able to agree that the world is a safe place, but she can focus on the help of people who came to her aid. Thus, she can count on the help of human beings that cared for her in her great need, and believe that people will do that again for her should she need that intervention.
Are traumatized people always negatively affected?
Some traumatized people do not show the great distress of mind, heart and emotions that others do. We speak of those people as having resilience. After a trauma, these people experience a brief period of disruption, such as several weeks of preoccupation with the event, but then their lives seem to return to normal. They pick back up with jobs, families, social and community responsibilities, and the like.
Why are these people different?
First, no one experiences any event in the same way as another person. Minor fluctuations in health, mood, and circumstance affect our ability to respond. More importantly, people with lots of social support from other persons, personal characteristics of courage and thriving on adversity, and an ability to draw back from unhealthy dwelling on problems seem to be resilient.
But it must be acknowledged that persons who experience deep traumas with fewer resources, suffer greatly. They often have one or more of three sources of distress. First, they have unwanted re-experiencing of the trauma, hearing noises, seeing distorted images, feeling pain and terror, and having dreams about the event. Second, they attempt to cope using avoidance. They try to avoid thinking about the trauma, or they physically avoid places or people that remind them of the trauma. Third, their mood and their thinking starts becoming governed by uncontrollability: they have angry outbursts, they feel hopeless, they withdraw from activities they used to enjoy, and they are easily startled or frightened. And these changes feel uncontrollable, in the sense that the changes are simply there all of a sudden, and the person believes they cannot alter their mood or their thinking.