As important as it is to understand what trauma is all about, it is really the symptoms after having experienced it that can so profoundly impact someone’s life. Whether physically painful and/or emotionally devastating, trauma often leads to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with its many very troubling symptoms. These symptoms include ongoing fear and anxiety, being easily triggered by any reminders of the initial trauma, being dissociative and/or hypervigilant and sometimes reenacting aspects of the original traumatic experience. PTSD can greatly interfere with a person’s quality of life and abilities to be emotionally and relationally healthy.
Which begs the question: is it possible to avoid PTSD after traumatic experience has occurred?
The book Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference by Trzeciak and Mazzarelli offers us some evidence-based research on this subject. The authors define compassion as “the emotional response to another’s pain or suffering, involving an authentic desire to help.”
They studied the impact of compassion on health outcomes in hospitals and other medical settings. Their research suggests that experiencing compassion calms psychological responses to stress. This occurs when there is a rapid intervention immediately after or even during a traumatic experience, such as when someone is in an accident. Soothing words of reassurance, calming touch, demonstrations of warmth and appreciation for how frightening an experience is, are all ways witnesses to another person’s trauma can demonstrate compassion.
They also state that this power to prevent PTSD is not magic, it is neuroscience. They state that compassion changes what is happening in the brain and can switch off alarm responses so that someone is not left with emotional wounds that can lead to PTSD.
Peter Levine, a world-renowned trauma expert, in his book In an Unspoken Voice (video below) describes his experience of being in an accident where he was severely injured when a driver hit him as he was coming out of his house. There were people who immediately came to his aid, with calming and caring messages. He also knew, as a neuroscientist, that it was important that he allow his body to shake to release the traumatic energy that had immediately accumulated in his system. He shares that he did not suffer PTSD after this trauma primarily because of these responses during and immediately after his traumatic experience.
Researchers and brothers Dr. Brian Roberts and Dr. Michael Roberts observed that, “the earlier a psychological intervention is applied—as close as possible to the psychological trauma, or, ideally, during the psychological trauma—the higher likelihood that the intervention can actually prevent the development of PTSD, rather than just treating it after the diagnosis is made. Their discovery is crucial in our understanding the nature of trauma and the development of PTSD: when a patient is in the recovery phase of their trauma, the psychological symptoms of PTSD are already beginning.”
Their recommendation is to train medical personnel to intervene during a trauma such as occurs in an emergency room, with compassionate responses, instead of waiting for PTSD to set in, believing this can prevent PTSD. I think of all the medical personnel in emergency rooms who are dealing with so many people experiencing extreme reactions to the Covid virus and how helpful this information would be to them.
We can all learn and draw power from this information. By immediately expressing compassion to someone who is experiencing something traumatic, we can help to prevent or at least lessen their potential PTSD symptoms. We need to keep the following fact in mind. Compassion can reduce fear levels which in turn reduces the amount of stress a person is experiencing.
An additional benefit of compassion is what happens to the person who is being compassionate. While many of us experience empathy for someone else’s physical and/or emotional pain, a person who is demonstrating compassion activates a very different part of their brain. This action component of trying to reduce another person’s suffering activates the reward pathway associated with affiliation and positive emotion. Expressing compassion therefore does not just help the person on the receiving end of that compassion but also the person who is being compassionate. A win-win!
We all have the power to be compassionate. It may require being more intentional and focused on how we are interacting with someone who has experienced or is even in the throes of something traumatic. Tucking this information away may come in handy if we witness another person’s traumatic experience.
Invitation for Reflection
- Think about how helpful this information could be to you and others who may at some point witness some kind of traumatic experience.
- Imagine yourself responding with compassion. What specifically would you do?
- Consider who you might share this information with so that they too gain the power to prevent or at least lessen PTSD reactions to trauma.
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute