In January of 2012, a man jumped into the back of my best friend’s car and put a gun to my head.
We’d just left a work event and I had parked on a dark side street. My friend had offered to drive me to my car so I’d “be safe,” but before I could get out of her car we were robbed at gunpoint.
After a few minutes (which felt like an hour) of yelling and demanding we hand over our wallets, the man slid out of the backseat and ran off into the night.
Although my friend and I drove away physically unscathed, the man ran away with both of our wallets and a large portion of my sense of control in the world.
The following months turned out to be really tough.
At night, as soon as my head would hit the pillow, I felt like my heart was going to beat right out of my chest. My mind would flood with anxious thoughts about everything from the unpaid parking ticket in my purse to whether or not I was safe to sleep at home alone.
I avoided the street we’d been robbed on and locked my doors incessantly. Literally, over night I became someone I barely knew. It was as if my brain had been replaced with someone else’s who was much more anxious and needed to control everything.
I ruminated over the simple question of “Why?” looking for some semblance of what I had possibly done wrong to not only be held up at gun point, but to experience the intense emotional repercussions afterwards.
“You should have locked your doors!” people unhelpfully reminded. “Bad things just happen to good people” or “It could have been so much worse, at least you weren’t hurt,” others falsely encouraged.
While it is true that locking doors is a risk reducer, and for sure, walking away unscathed from an armed robbery doesn’t hold a candle to those who live in constant fear of gun violence, none of these responses were in the least bit helpful. And some actually caused more emotional pain.
Finally, after 6 months of feeling out of control and depressed I swallowed the hard truth I had been denying for months; I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And, I knew things weren’t going to get better unless I sought out professional help.
I arranged an appointment with a therapist and began Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, an evidence-based therapy for a myriad of traumatic and physiological issues.
Within just a few sessions my heart stopped racing as quickly at night and I gradually became less obsessive about locking doors. Now, three years later, while there are things I do differently than before the trauma, distress from my trauma symptoms is a rare occurrence.
In the process of healing my post-traumatic stress symptoms I learned some things about how others can be helpful. If you know someone in St. Louis who has experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, here are some suggestions.
- Don’t question their response: When people experience a trauma, the instinctual part of their brain is taking over. This means they aren’t analyzing for more creative ways to respond in the moment. Some people will try to defend themselves (fight), some may attempt to escape (flight), and others might stand still (freeze). There is no right or wrong response, and ultimately that person’s brain is doing everything it can to help them survive. Questioning why they responded the way they did is ultimately futile since the reaction is instinctual.
- Don’t state or imply they could have done something different: A natural response of survivors of trauma is to question why it happened or what they did to cause it. This is very emotionally challenging. Stating or implying that there was something more they could have done will only re-enforce the harmful beliefs that victims are in some way bad or wrong simply because they went through a trauma. Even if more preventative measures could’ve been undertaken, the ultimate truth is that the victimization shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
- Don’t try to fix them: Each person’s experience with trauma is unique and people will have vastly different responses and needs afterwards. Giving advice about what you would have done or how you think they should try to move on does not provide a safe or empathetic space for the person to heal, even if you mean well.
- Listen without judgment: After trauma, a person may want to talk a lot about the trauma or not at all. If the person decides to confide in you, do your best to listen with an open-mind and thank them for sharing their story with you. “I’m sorry to hear this happened” can be appropriate, but try to avoid saying things like, “Well at least you’re okay.” While the person may look okay on the outside, they might not be feeling okay on the inside.
- Know the signs of post-traumatic stress: After trauma, a person may act differently than they once did. They may have difficulties sleeping or they might think a lot about the trauma. They may even feel like they are back in the traumatic moment from time to time. Sometimes people appear angrier or they might seem to be shutting down entirely. These are all signs that the person may be struggling with post-traumatic stress. As a friend or family member, no need to diagnose. Simply provide an understanding and supportive space.
- Encourage them to connect with a mental health professional: Trauma can be a very complex thing to heal and may require professional help. If your friend or loved one is struggling, it is okay to encourage them to seek out additional support through a trained trauma counselor in St. Louis.
Here are several helpful resources to learn more about trauma and find resources to help your friend or loved one.
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Abby S. Howard is a Psychotherapist and Emotional Eating Coach at Change, Inc., a St. Louis Counseling and Psychiatry practice. She helps people enhance their well-being and break free from thoughts and behaviors holding them back in life. Download her free guide, 101+ Ways to Feel Better in Your Body Now. Contact her for counseling at 314-669-6242, or firstname.lastname@example.org.