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Surviving Suicide Loss, Surviving Traumatic Stress

by Jennie Marks

The terms trauma and traumatic stress do not apply only to survivors of war, natural disaster, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, violent crime, or of a horrific accident. They also apply to those who have suffered a loss through the death of someone close to them. The trauma is even greater when the death is due to suicide and especially if the person was nearby at the time of death, or was the person who discovered the body of their loved one. We know that these traumatic, stressful events can cause a person to experience powerlessness, feel overwhelmed, lack of connection and meaning, and may impact their ability to experience calmness and safety inside themselves. They can also impact their ability to have meaningful relationships, and sustain optimal functioning.

What we need to understand about trauma is that it is not the re-living of a traumatic past event, but an experience in the present moment based upon a past event. According to Bessel van der Kolk, MD, one of the authors of Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, “Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then,” he says. “It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.” This can be translated to trauma living inside our bodies and experiencing it as if it is happening right now.

How do we determine if we are experiencing post-traumatic stress?  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Symptoms of PTSD usually begin within 3 months of the traumatic incident, but they sometimes emerge later. To meet the criteria for PTSD, symptoms must last longer than 1 month, and they must be severe enough to interfere with aspects of daily life, such as relationships or work. The symptoms also must be unrelated to medication, substance use, or other illness.” The following screening questions may help to determine whether you may be suffering from PTSD:

Have you experienced or witnessed a life-threatening event that caused intense fear, helplessness, or horror?

Do you have intrusions about the event in at least one of the following ways?

  • Repeated, distressing memories, or dreams
  • Acting or feeling as if the event were happening again (flashbacks or a sense of reliving it
  • Intense physical and/or emotional distress when you are exposed to things that remind you of the event

Do you avoid things that remind you of the event in at least one of the following ways?

  • Avoiding thoughts, feelings, or conversations about it
  • Avoiding activities and places or people who remind you of it

Since the event, do you have negative thoughts and mood associated with the event in at least 2 of the following ways?

  • Blanking on important parts of it
  • Negative beliefs about oneself, others, and the world and about the cause or consequences of the event
  • Feeling detached from other people
  • Inability to feel positive emotions
  • Persistent negative emotional state

 Are you troubled by at least two of the following?

  • Problems sleeping
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Reckless or self-destructive behavior
  • Problems concentrating
  • Feeling “on guard”
  • An exaggerated startle response

Self-Help

It is important to know that, although it may take some time, you can get better with treatment. According to the NIMH, here are some things you can do to help yourself:

  • Talk with your health care provider about treatment options, and follow your treatment plan.
  • Engage in exercise, mindfulness, or other activities that help reduce stress.
  • Try to maintain routines for meals, exercise, and sleep.
  • Set realistic goals and do what you can as you are able.
  • Spend time with trusted friends or relatives, and tell them about things that may trigger symptoms.
  • Expect your symptoms to improve gradually, not immediately.
  • Avoid use of alcohol or drugs

Professional Help

Behavioral therapy, sometimes called “talk therapy,” includes a variety of treatment techniques that mental health professionals use to help people identify and change troubling emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Mental health counseling can provide support, education, and guidance to people with PTSD and their families. There are several forms of cognitive therapy available which may be helpful. There are also medications that may be beneficial in treating PTSD. The American Psychiatric Association recommends that individuals consult with a mental health professional in order to obtain an accurate diagnosis and to discuss various treatment options. When you meet with a professional, be sure to work together to establish clear treatment goals and to monitor your progress toward those goals. Different individuals have different needs and therapies are not “one size fits all.”

As with grief, healing comes over time. The most important thing to remember is that the effects of trauma CAN be improved to restore full functioning in your daily life.

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