No ‘right way’ to respond to trauma

Experiences, and responses, can be personal and individual

Feelings Trauma image

When something terrible happens, people everywhere are eager to rush in and offer support. This can be anything from a phone call to check on a neighbor, to coordinating widespread interventions for large groups. People want to connect and seek to show others that, despite how overwhelming this experience may feel, they are not alone. A sense of community and togetherness can be an essential part of coping with violence and trauma exposure, but there are also other important factors to consider.   

Trauma exposures are--by definition--life-threatening, scary, and intense. Following a trauma exposure, or multiple exposures  over  time, therapists expect a person to have psychological or behavioral responses. These may include heightened sadness, irritability, anger, or other behavioral manifestations such as difficulty sleeping, or separating from loved ones. 

The mental health community anticipates these responses will occur following a trauma exposure. Moreover, we expect the intensity of those behavioral responses to ebb and flow over time, with a significant decrease in emotional distress after about 30 days following the exposure or the ending of chronic exposures.   

Additionally, it is important to consider that two people may experience the same event, yet have two completely different reactions. Meaning, you could be experiencing the crisis in Israel right now and feel sad and scared, but can still engage in your daily routine; meanwhile, your best friend may feel too scared to send her kids to school or leave the house. This does not mean that one person is more resilient than another, but it does mean that these two people with the same exposure may need different types of support. Instead, it is important to give both you and your best friend some space to figure out what you each need, once the panic of the initial exposure has diminished. 

This can be harder with situations like the current experience in Israel, because people are susceptible to constant exposures over a period of time, as the situation is ongoing and changing, but the response is the same. The best thing you can do at this time is to find a balance for yourself and your loved ones. 

Feel free to reach out--but if they ask for space, allow that. Feel free to take a break from social media, but visit sources that you trust if you need information. People are going to experience distress following events unfolding in Israel because they are exposed to incessant disturbing information and images. 

People need the opportunity to figure out what they need--and that need can change over time. Calling on their resources and supports for assistance, and outsourcing the support to professionals when necessary, is how we practice resilience. 

There are also ways to support yourself, your family, and your community. There is a tremendous amount of value in confiding in another person, or offering a helping hand. You can validate others by acknowledging that this experience is difficult, that it's okay not to know all the answers, that you reserve the right to feel whatever is natural to you. 

That's because there is no wrong way to cope. Please remember that there is nothing that will completely eliminate your distress, that is going to make your distress completely disappear, but trust that, over time, you will find ways to cope.   

JCFS Chicago is offering a warm line for anyone, anywhere looking for support. Call 855-275-5237 to talk with someone, including Hebrew-speaking emotional-support professionals.  

Megan Lerner, LCSW, is the Director of the Kaufman Wolf Center for Trauma & Resilience for JCFS Chicago. 

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