Activist Trauma & Recovery

Article By Activist Trauma: East Oxford community Centre

One of the amazing things about activists is that we often deliberately expose ourselves to brutality when believe it necessary. What is sometimes equally surprising is how little we know about the psychological effects of this violence. We need to prepare ourselves and learn how to support each other through the physical and emotional consequences of trauma.

People’s reactions to traumatic events vary enormously; some may become withdrawn, others may be fearful or angry. The time it takes to recover from trauma also varies from hours or days to weeks, months and sometimes years – though most people recover within a month. Post-traumatic stress can take many forms. Some may find themselves more scared of the police or of crowded situations; others may become angry while others feel paralyzed and vulnerable. You may feel changed as a person. Opening spaces to exchange experiences and communicate our emotions are important first steps to deal with experiences of violence.

Post-traumatic stress is a normal response to abnormal circumstances.

Possible signs and symptoms of a traumatic stress reaction

  • Emotional signs include: sadness, helplessness, feeling numb, anxiety, fear, apprehension, uncertainty, grief, denial, guilt, depression, feeling overwhelmed, loss of emotional control, irritability, agitation, intense anger with self or others, shame.
  • Cognitive(thinking) effects include: confusion or mental fuzziness; poor attention and concentration; poor problem-solving; poor decision-making; memory problems; loss of orientation; disturbing thoughts; flashbacks and intrusive images; avoidance of thinking; nightmares, panic attacks, hyper-vigilance, guilt, and blaming others or yourself.
  • Behavioural signs include: withdrawal; tearfulness and emotional outbursts; an inability to feel settled; suspiciousness; hyper-alertness/intensified startle-response; a loss or increase in appetite; increased alcohol consumption; increased use of medication; change in sexual functioning; altered sleep patterns; strained relationships; increased accidents; avoidance of places, people or situations; loss of interest in life; reluctance to discuss the event or wanting to talk about it all the time; apparent personality change or anti-social behaviour.
  • Physical effects include: fatigue, weakness, nausea, dizziness, chest pain, elevated blood pressure, difficulty breathing, sweating, teeth-grinding, rapid heart rate, muscle tremors, visual difficulties, menstrual changes, feeling faint, stomach upsets, muscular tension leading to head, neck or backache.

Note: it is highly unlikely that all of the symptoms will apply at the same time. Remember that these symptoms are natural reactions to very disturbing situations, and some of these symptoms are attempts of your body and your brain trying to protect you.

If these symptoms apply to you, make sure the people surrounding you get to see this list, so they are able to understand your reactions better.

What Is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Most people recover from trauma within a few weeks. However, some 20-30% of people exposed to trauma develop a range of symptoms which psychologists call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is officially considered an illness and should be treated on the NHS. This diagnosis applies when stress symptoms do not disappear after a month or so. Effective treatments for PTSD are available, and awareness of the condition and personal preparation can reduce the risk of developing symptoms after an incident.

PTSD is diagnosed when there has been exposure to an extreme stressor, resulting in a set of symptoms that persist for more than a month, and can continue for much longer. These stressors are, for example, being attacked by the police, raped, mugged, a serious accident, child abuse, the sudden unexpected death of a loved one, or witnessing a traumatic event. Recently, therapists have also begun to talk about ‘complex PTSD’ where the person has been exposed to a series of repeated stressors rather than a single one – for example previous (childhood) trauma plus being attacked by the police.

A person with PTSD has three main types of symptoms:

  1. Re-experiencing of the traumatic event indicated by: Flashbacks, nightmares, exaggerated emotional and physical reactions to things (called “triggers”) that remind the person of the event
  2. Avoidance and emotional numbing indicated by: Avoiding anything that reminds the person of activities, places, thoughts, feelings, or conversations related to the trauma. A loss of interest, “in life”. (Some may feel that activism seems pointless.) Feeling numb and detached from others, being withdrawn and avoiding social interactions
  3. Increased arousal indicated by: Difficulty sleeping – or conversely sleeping longer. Irritability or outbursts of anger, often over “minor incidents”. Difficulty concentrating and performing normal tasks. Hyper-vigilance, seeing or feeling danger “everywhere”, not necessarily connected with the original incident. An exaggerated startle-response, e.g. diving for cover if a car back-fires

Note: It is always worth getting an official diagnosis from a psychologist. With this paper you can, for example, ask to resign from work for some time. It also useful in case you have to go to court in connection with the traumatic experience as it is possible that your sentence might be reduced due to the suffering you have already gone through or that you will be compensated more.

Some specific problems associated with PTSD

  • Panic attacks
    Individuals who have experienced a trauma may have panic attacks when exposed to something that reminds them of the trauma (eg. seeing police officers - especially riot police). Physical symptoms include pounding or racing heart, sweating, trembling or shaking, a feeling of shortness of breath or choking, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, chills, hot flushes, numbness, or tingling. The person may also experience psychological symptoms such as feeling unreal or detached or fearing that they are going crazy, dying, or having a heart attack.
  • Severe avoidance behaviour
    Sometimes avoidance begins to extend far beyond reminders of the original trauma to all sorts of situations in everyday life. This can become so severe that the person becomes virtually housebound.
  • Depression
    Many people become depressed and no longer take interest or pleasure in things they used to enjoy before. They may also develop unjustified feelings of guilt and self-blame and feel that the experience was their fault, even when this is clearly not true. For example, an activist may blame themselves for being attacked by the police or not being able to prevent someone else being beaten.
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings
    Sometimes depression can lead to thoughts of suicide. (As many as 50% of rape victims report suicidal thoughts.) If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts following a traumatic event, it is very important to consult a professional immediately and get help.
  • Substance abuse
    People with PTSD may, understandably, turn to alcohol or drugs – legal or illegal – to try to deaden their pain. However, inappropriate substance use greatly aggravates the symptoms and makes successful treatment difficult. Alcohol and drugs will make a bad situation much worse.
  • Feelings of alienation and isolation
    People with PTSD need support, but they often feel very alone and isolated by their experience and find it very difficult to reach out to others for help. They find it hard to believe that other people will be able to understand what they have gone through. They may also find it difficult to function socially. Relationship difficulties with partners, friends and family are very common after a severe trauma.
  • Anger and irritability
    Anger and irritability are common reactions among trauma survivors. If you have been assaulted, anger is a natural and justified reaction. However, extreme anger can interfere with recovery and make it hard for a person to get along with others at home, at work, and in treatment. A survivor may express disproportionate anger about a minor issue – this can turn out to be displaced anger about the trauma.
  • Severe impairment in daily functioning
    Some people with PTSD have very severe problems functioning in simple day-to-day life. A person may lose their ability to do ordinary tasks that were formerly easy and may be unable to fulfil their previous obligations.
  • Uncontrolled crying
    Sometimes people cry a lot for a long period of time. The pure thought of the event, or any “triggers” produces a deep grief that expresses itself through intense crying sometimes screaming, sometimes voiceless.
  • Delayed PTSD
    Although the symptoms of PTSD usually begin immediately after (or within a few weeks of) the trauma, they sometimes appear only several months or even years later. This may be more likely to happen on the anniversary of the traumatic event or if another trauma is experienced, especially if it reminds the person of the original event.

The Treatment of PTSD

Good informed support is the most useful treatment for most people but in some serious cases then appropriate psychotherapy, support groups and even sometimes medication may be necessary.

  • Alternative Treatments
    Traditional Chinese medicine: acupuncture or acupressure (basically acupuncture without needles) can be used as prevention, i.e. to maintain good health and readiness for action/demos; and as treatment, after the event, to help heal any wounds. Acupuncture is not just for physical health problems. It can help the 'shen', or spirit, just as much as the body and has been shown to help ease PTSD symptoms. Try to go to a practitioner who specialises in/has experience of treating psychological/spirit disorders and make sure they always use disposable needles. (Read on-line guides to choosing a practitioner.) Other therapies known to help psychological trauma include: Shiatsu, Reiki, holistic massage, Bach flower remedies and yoga.
  • Exercise
    Physically energetic activities are helpful so go cycling, swimming, walking etc. if you can.
  • Find a place of retreat
    It is important to be in a place where you feel safe and where you have friends around you who can look after you. PTSD is like being ill, and you should take your time, let others take care of you.
  • Acceptance
    PTSD can happen to anybody. It does not mean you are weak. You have the right to feel how you feel, and to accept that is an important step in recovery.
  • Psychotherapy
    Find a therapist who has experience of dealing with PTSD, and preferably one who is politically sympathetic. Rape helplines can often give good advice and have contacts for therapists who are clued-up on PTSD.
Four types of psychotherapy are especially effective in treating PTSD:
  1. Anxiety management
    (involving relaxation training, breathing retraining, positive thinking and self-talk, assertiveness training.)
  2. Cognitive therapy
    (helping to change irrational or unrealistic beliefs associated with the trauma.)
  3. Exposure therapy
    (helping you confront situations, people or emotions which evoke the trauma, eg. asking a copper for directions. Your fear will gradually begin to dissipate if you force yourself to remain in the situation rather than trying to escape it.)
  4. Group therapy
    Self-help groups can be very useful especially if people who have been through similar traumatic experiences.