Surviving Trauma

Like all things, SURVIVING TRAUMA comes in three parts:

  1. Understand what trauma is.
  2. Learn how to help others survive trauma.
  3. Understand how to survive trauma yourself.


Emergency medical technicians, ambulance drivers, rescue workers, search and rescue teams and others encounter trauma every day. All of their training seems to be aimed at responding to, encountering, and resolving trauma. The problem is that little, if any, of their training is aimed at teaching those who encounter trauma on how to deal with the mental and emotional impact on both the victims and those who aid them.


On a mental level, trauma is any emergency that evokes an emotional reaction, whether or not acknowledged. For some, going to a dentist (or helping a small child deal with a dentist) is a matter of trauma. For others, even death may not be a trauma.

However, for most people, any time there is the sudden anticipation of severe injury (to the body or a relationship or asset), whether or not it occurs, an emotional trauma results. Properly coped with, such trauma resolves. If not coped with, such trauma builds until serious problems erupt.

This is commonly seen in emergency workers who suddenly "just can't face it" any more, soldiers with combat fatigue, and the families of those with drug and alcohol addictions.


There is a basic cycle that the mind uses to resolve trauma. It consists of shock/denial, anger/blame, grief/fear, bargaining, and acceptance/resolution. The middle elements (anger/blame, grief/fear, bargaining) may not happen in any particular order, and may not always occur with every trauma. Trauma that is not resolved often stops or freezes at some point in the cycle.

Shock/denial is a common freezing point -- how often have you heard "problem, there is no problem." Anger/blame is also very common -- how often have you met someone who is still angry about an incident or occurrence. These, and others, are all examples of people who have frozen at some point in the trauma cycle. (The trauma cycle is best documented as it relates to grief, but is a part of how people deal with every conflict or injury).


There are two elements to helping others with the trauma cycle.

First, be aware of the cycle so that you can gently aid them at whatever point they are at. It is important to realize that there is a cycle, that people will move around it (often more than once) and that the various emotional states need to be worked through rather than denied, suppressed or converted into some other form of denial.

Second, use neurolinguistic skills to establish rapport and bridge the gap when dealing with those in the trauma cycle. Half of the lessons in the "Resolving Trauma" deal with understanding, developing and improving neurolinguistic skills. Proper use of these skills will help you reduce the level of anxiety, confusion and loss felt by those in trauma situations.


To survive the trauma cycle yourself, over and over again, you need to develop three skills.

First, you must recognize that you are going through the trauma cycle.

You need to realize you are having emotional responses to trauma.

You need to realize that the emotional response you are encountering is trauma -- just as if you were being hit physically instead of emotionally.

You need to recognize the various types of trauma responses -- and realize that "just because" a response is justified does not mean it is not traumatic.

, you must create a pattern that allows you to vent and work through the stress that you have accumulated from trauma.

In the Air Force, after every mission, pilots are debriefed. This helps them bleed off and vent the stress from the trauma they have encountered. If you can, find someone to talk to who will debrief" you.

Aerobic exercise (especially walking) is an extremely effective way to vent stress. Adjust your life to support thirty minutes a day of walking, gardening or other aerobic exercise.

Sincere religious belief and prayer (statistical studies show that the sincerity counts more than any other factor) aid people in resolving stress and trauma. Find or create a tradition and follow it.

Third, you must continue to work through reducing trauma causing elements in your life.

Find and create a routine that incorporates patterns that vent and work through.

Use neurolinguistic techniques and skills to reduce conflict and stress in your environment.

Learn to take breaks and vacations that truly allow you to find and use deep relaxation and respite from your employment and stress.


By understanding trauma causing events and the trauma cycle you can learn to identify trauma in your life and the lives of others. By appreciating and using neurolinguistic skills and techniques you can reduce the amount of stress and violence in your communication and environment. Finally, by incorporating appropriate venting and work through patterns into your life and by combining them with periods of respite and vacation, you can renew yourself and resolve the traumas that you encounter.

Your environment, your employment or your personal life may create and sustain situations where you are subjected to repeated trauma. However, instead of being battered and beaten by trauma, you can overcome denial, work through anger and fear, and through reconciliation reach a level of growth and resilience that leads to greater health and strength in spite of trauma.


Suzette Haden Elgin


The Resolution Cycle is addressed (in greater depth) at:

Copyright 1997
Stephen R. Marsh

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