Having a personal experience of a tsunami is likely to occur only once in a lifetime, if at all. But the feelings of trauma experienced during and after a tsunami are felt over and over by people as a result of other traumas that they experience in their everyday lives. So learning how counseling helped those after the tsunami may help you also to understand and manage your own reactions to any traumatic event.
During any life-threatening event, your body releases massive quantities of adrenalin – the fight or flight chemical responsible for our survival. This is the chemical that causes you to feel nauseous, to lose your appetite and that affects your breathing. Your chest may tighten and you may tremble uncontrollably, all the while having a racing heart, pumping the blood and preparing your body to run or to ‘fight back’ at a moment’s notice.
Once the danger is over, the brain’s anticipation of a recurrence of the event causes adrenalin to still be produced, which perpetuates the trauma feeling. This alerts the person to the possibility of further danger, and causes them to be hyper-vigilant. This usually results in difficulties with sleep and with eating. This then becomes a vicious cycle, and the sufferer can become cranky with tiredness and often irrational and fearful of people and events.
The feeling of trauma is so horrible that a person fears having to suffer the event again. This in fact results in the person re-experiencing the fear by having constant obsessive thought about it. The physical feeling of fear reinforces the belief that the event is likely to reoccur. This is the cycle that needs understanding before it can be conquered.
After the Asian Tsunami on December 26, 2004, I was called, with my husband Dr. Mike Gosling, to act as a trauma counselor in Phuket, Thailand. With the help of interpreters, I educated hotel staff and guests to understand the very nature of the traumatic response I explained that the production of adrenalin at the time was not only normal, but necessary, as it assisted people to run away from the waves, to carry injured people and to climb trees when they previously could not even climb.
The ongoing feeling of threat would diminish in time, I told them, but it may be about six weeks before they felt normal. This is because the brain remains on high alert for danger and instructs the body to produce more adrenalin “just in case” it is needed. This physiological response is experienced as anxiety.
By observing the feeling and acknowledging its purpose, a person experiences it less, as it gradually “drains away” from the body. Dwelling makes it worse. Getting busy with a task can help to distract you from your thoughts and can allow you to feel once again back in control of your life, rather than helpless and out of control, which are the feelings that belong to trauma.