Just Get Over It?
"Try to put it behind you."
"Be glad you're alive and okay."
"Just give it time and you'll be back to your old self."
"Just get over it."
As you begin to rebuild your life after a violent encounter, it's not uncommon for family and friends to attempt to comfort you with these kinds of assurances. They are delivered with the absolute best of intentions after all, they want to help, but it's just not easy to know how to support someone who has lived through a violent crime. But as many survivors know, these "assurances" don't have their intended impact. Rather, they represent a lack of understanding about how deep the wounds reach and how difficult it may be to recover. Instead of helping, such comments may actually exacerbate an already strong sense of alienation and withdrawal.
Depending on the survivor's personality, the nature of the crime(s), the survivor's support network and a host of other factors, some victims do appear to "get over it" and move on with their lives fairly quickly. Many others require more time and effort to recover, which in no way indicates weakness on the part of the survivor. Keep in mind that recovery is a very complex process about which very little is actually "known," and that resilience and strength come in many forms. A commitment to healing is the greatest step forward - regardless of how long it takes.
If you are like many, the reality is that you may never "just get over it" or "get back to your old self." Violence can easily be a life-altering event and may require a prolonged and proactive effort to rebuild your life. While your essence as a person remains the same, violence can shake you to the core and radically alter your perceptions of people and world around you. Eventually, moments without anxiety, carefree days and joy will again enter your life as signs of healing, but be prepared for the possibility that it will take a while.
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is a mental health condition caused by virtually any kind of deep emotional trauma (especially one that's unexpected). PTSD brings about both emotional and physical suffering. People experiencing PTSD usually feel shattered and torn apart, like they will never feel "normal" again. PTSD can make you feel different from everyone else, changed forever or, in some cases, even make you question your sanity. Psychologists and counselors with experience treating trauma survivors can be very helpful in working through PTSD, and there are certain medications that can lessen the symptoms of PTSD while you work through the healing process.
- Emotional "numbness" and withdrawal (also symptoms of PTSD)
This is a natural coping mechanism. The pain and horror may be too intense and the people around you probably don't understand what's going on inside you.
- Trouble sleeping
Dreams, nightmares and insomnia are frequent following trauma.
- Anger and mood swings
Anger is as normal as any other part of the healing process. After all, your world was turned upside down.
- Flashbacks and "triggers"
As you begin to heal and "re-engage" life, certain sounds, smells, situations, images or stories can act as "triggers" that take you back to the crime you encountered, almost instantly opening the flood gates to a potentially overwhelming emotional experience. These flashbacks can be frightening and paralyzing. Identifying your triggers may be helpful in managing or avoiding flashbacks altogether. In the likely event that you experience a flashback, focusing on where you are and what you need to do to feel safe in the moment, can help to disrupt the flashback or at least minimize the suffering it causes you.
Painful reminders of the violence you survived may also come through associations with people, particular circumstances or certain places. Healing may require putting distance between yourself and uncomfortable reminders. While a time may come to reconnect with certain individuals or revisit places or situations, you need to do what is best for you and your survival during the healing process, particularly during the initial stages of recovery.
- Secondary wounding
While interacting with people who lack understanding is always frustrating, the vulnerability and hypersensitivity that many survivors experience can make even casual interactions painful and damaging. It's not uncommon for others to ask insensitive or redundant questions. People who have never experienced the horror of a violent crime simply cannot relate. They may unintentionally inflict secondary wounding by asking for details at inappropriate times or offering misguided and oversimplified assurances such as "just try to get over it" or "put it behind you." Explain to others what you are going through, and if they say something that isn't helpful, let them know and try to explain why.
Depression feels like a heavy, dark and sometimes endless cloud hovering over you. Survivors experiencing depression may feel exhausted, tired and sad. It can stifle any longing to engage with others or even to get out of bed or eat. In its worst form, depression can induce feelings of intense hopelessness and suicidal thinking. It is crucial to remember that there is hope, help and healing. Don't be afraid to seek out a psychologist or counselor with expertise in helping trauma survivors.
- Loss of interest in physical and sexual intimacy
Lost interest in physical and sexual connections with others is also common following trauma, especially for those who have experienced sexual violence. It takes time and patience to rekindle an interest in romance, and this can be stressful on relationships with significant others. It is important to talk with your partner about what you are going through so that he or she can try to understand and be supportive in giving you the space you need to heal.
- Decreased ability to trust
Learning to trust again is a major emotional hurdle for many survivors of crime. After a violent encounter, it's not uncommon for victims to feel as if they can no longer give some people, especially those they don't know very well, the benefit of the doubt. Don't feel as if you need to force yourself to trust people in an effort to get back to "your old self." In general, trust should be something that's earned anyway. But remember that adopting a policy of complete distrust probably isn't going to help you heal in the long run.
For some, part of the healing process involves grieving the life you had and the person you were before you encountered violence. Mourning your personal loss is completely normal - a lot has been taken from you. Allow yourself to mourn.
- Lowered self-esteem
Following violence, victims often reflect on what they could have done differently to avoid being victimized, whether they were in some way responsible for what took place, whether others can see how they were violated and whether friends and family can notice the changes taking place within them as a result of the violent trauma. Being stuck in this kind of thinking can negatively impact your self-esteem and engender self-doubt. Try to avoid this rut - try to focus your energies instead on healing, progress and other positive pursuits.
- Faltering faith
While some may say to you "a guardian angel must have been watching over you to keep you alive," many survivors wonder how God could have let such a horrible crime happen in the first place. Questioning faith and belief systems is also very common among survivors of violent crime. Find someone whom you can trust to talk about faith issues, someone who will not make judgments about what you should or should not believe or deliver patronizing answers to silence you.
- Pursuit of safety measures
Many survivors feel that they need to take additional steps such as purchasing security devices or weapons, or creating new living arrangements to make their homes and lives safe. While some such measures can increase safety and security, staying alert and aware of your surroundings is probably the single best safety measure anyone can take.
If you've gone through periods of sleepless nights where you have to get up and "do something" or find yourself having a hard time sitting still, you may be experiencing an episode of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is a natural response to danger. Your mind and body want to stay alert to any possible threats, real or imagined. Focused activity may help us to feel more in control again. Rest and peace eventually will come, especially as you do what is needed to heal.
- Difficulties focusing at work/school
It's not hard to understand that since your world was just turned on its head, it may be difficult to focus at work, school or social events. It's important to give yourself time to heal and to understand that you may not be up to a full schedule, at least not right away. Try to do what you think will most help you, given what you know about your personality and needs. Maybe take some time off or limit your schedule. Also, talking with your human resources manager or school counselor to explain what is going on may help protect your job or grades. Healing takes time and requires a lot of energy.
- Using alcohol or other drugs as a release or escape
The stress and anxiety following a violent incident can be very difficult to sustain, especially over long periods of time, and many victims turn to substances as a means to relax and obtain a sense of some short-term relief from PTSD. But contrary to helping us work through our issues, alcohol and illicit drugs tend to numb us to our reality. They can never take away the source of our pain or anxiety. If anything, they leave us more powerless and, in the particularly vulnerable state that follows a violent nightmare, drug use can lead perhaps more easily to addiction. Your road to healing is difficult enough. Reach out and grab hold of the resources that will build you up and make you stronger. If you are using substances to numb the pain, get help now. Talk with a doctor or counselor about how to work through the struggles in a healthy, productive manner.
- Exaggerated startle response
Because of the trauma you experienced, you may feel "on edge" or "jumpy." In time, as you develop a new sense of safety and work through the healing process, these feelings will lessen and eventually go away.
Some things you can do to work through tough times include:
- Talk about your thoughts and feelings with someone you can trust just to listen and support you.
- Exercise is a good way to take care of yourself as well as gain control over your body.
- Use relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep-breathing or listening to music.
- Turn your negative experience into something positive: write, volunteer or donate.