The Trauma Hangover 1

The trauma hangover

Perhaps this week you have felt “fuzzy” in your mind, quite emotional, unable to make decisions, not quite settled and very, very tired. My good friend calls this a “trauma hangover”.

Following the unrest in South Africa two weeks ago, how are you really doing? Have you had a chance to process what has happened on a personal level?

Perhaps this week you have felt “fuzzy” in your mind, quite emotional, unable to make decisions, not quite settled and very, very tired. My good friend calls this a “trauma hangover”.

The week of unrest we all experienced (acknowledging for many that it has been even longer), could be seen as an acute time of stress and/or a trauma. Stress and trauma exist along the same continuum in that the lived experiences and responses can look and feel quite similar. What is important about the definition of trauma is that it is based on the perception of the person experiencing it. Some people may have experienced the unrest as “merely” stressful; others will still be feeling the impact of it as trauma.

Duros & Crowley (2014:238) state that trauma could be thought of as “what happens to a person where there is either too much too soon, too much for too long, or not enough for too long.” (in Dana, 2020).

The unrest could have felt like just too much for too long for many of us. Neurologically, we live in states of either protection or connection (Dana, 2020). When we are in a state of protection, we live in “survival mode”. We know we simply need to get through each day doing what it takes to keep safe.

We may have felt like we were living in survival mode when shops were closed and we had nothing left to eat, no idea of when food would be coming and in the background, there were gunshots, billowing smoke in all directions, and a constant stream of videos of looting and violence on the news and social media. There may have been a really personal sense of possible threat if you or a loved one were part of the patrols through each day and night.  Another friend refers to the week of unrest as “the apocalypse” and there’s something that rings very true about this!

When we are in a state of protection, we have less capacity to connect with others, and very little capacity for change. You may have found yourself simply shutting down from others, not able to answer phone calls or messages, and with very little capacity to take on board new information. Instead, you may have found yourself cleaning compulsively, or moving about restlessly desiring to do something useful to help but feeling immobilised in the face of it all. In this state of protection, things can feel discombobulated.

The connection state allows for health, growth and restoration. We can only be in connection when we are no longer in survival.

In my experience, queuing for food one day helped to move me from protection into connection. I found myself in a public space with others who were going through a similar experience to me, and yet there was an air of calm and cooperation. I was able to obtain food for our family and others. For those who lived in areas where there were no shops or the queues took all day, I would guess that they lived in a state of protection for much longer than I did.

As parents, many of us were probably living in a protection state and yet trying to do everything we could to present an outward state of connection to our children in order to shield them from the severity of what was happening. Now this can leave you feeling discombobulated as you essentially live two realities at the same time. No wonder we may have a trauma hangover.

All this is to tell you; you are normal. You are normal if you feel like crying a lot. You are normal if you’re feeling furious. You are normal if you’re still a bit jumpy, suspicious, anxious, fatigued, fuzzy, confused and overwhelmed. Whatever else it is you’ve been experiencing recently, you’re normal.

Hangovers do pass. You have to treat yourself with care and delicacy while they’re around, though. And if after another two weeks or so you feel like you’re still hungover, it may be time to seek extra help. Or even now is a good time to seek help especially if you haven’t had a good opportunity to talk through your experiences with others in a way that feels healthy for you, or your trauma hangover is stopping you from functioning day to day.

Make time to process your experiences, seek healthy connection, be kind to yourself.

Reference: “Polyvagal exercises for safety and connection.” by Dr. Deb Dana. (2020)

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