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Take the First Steps to Address Trauma

War. Terrorism. Abuse. In today’s world, feeling secure is an elusive goal. It seems that, at least of late, there is a new reason for fear almost daily. And with all the information that is available to us so quickly, if we want more scary things, we can all too easily find them on the television or the internet. The unsettling realities seem to be much easier to find these days than the free and easy existence we knew before terrorism hit America.

So, at least for now, fear has become part of the American tapestry. And with some of these realities, some fear is an appropriate response. Fear is not always a bad thing, for it can motivate us to protect ourselves. It is the fact that we fear another attack that has moved the nation to make airports more secure, speed up investigations of terrorist networks, and protect our vital interests. If we were not afraid, we would not take those steps and would be much more vulnerable. So, fear that protects us is very important and very adaptive.

But at the same time, there is a difference in an appropriate fear that makes us take actions that protect us, and living in a state of fear that hinders everyday life. When fear goes past its function of keeping us alert, it interferes with our ability to connect to the things in life that are important to us. We find it more difficult to function well in our significant relationships, our work, recreation, and the rest of the activities that we hold dear to our hearts. At that point, we need more than protection from the things that are causing the fear. Indeed, we need protection from the fear itself.

So what helps with fear and trauma? In a short amount of space it is difficult to say much, but there are some very real and practical things that you can do that will help you to deal with your anxiety, and get back to life. Let’s take a look.

1. Connection to others
If there is anything that helps humans feel more secure, it is being around others. This has been proven time and time again, from dealing with sickness, to loss, to trauma, and even death. We seem to be designed, even biochemically, to feel better and calmer when we are “close to the tribe.” But just being in a crowd does not suffice. We must have our hearts knitted together, and to do that we have to talk to one another about our fears, feelings, insecurities and the like, and give and take the support that comes from a good support system. So, in this time, get close to the ones you love, the ones you feel supported by personally, and the larger community that you are a part of, like a church, synagogue, club, or other organization that is addressing the situation and processing it.

2. Create structure 
One of the things that a trauma like this does is destroy some of the structure of life that helps us feel normal. For many, their normal routines have been interfered with, like travel, opening the mail, going through security at the office, etc. Life has changed, and that can be unsettling in and of itself to many people. So, make sure that you are taking control of the things that you can control, like your schedule, your work, and even your connecting to others. Make a routine time that you are going to meet a few friends every week for lunch, or have a support group at your home where people just gather and talk about the issues in their lives. The important thing here is that there is a certain time and place that structures these events, and that you can depend on their being there. Go to other things that already have structure to them, like support networks at local organizations or places of worship. And, if you are a spiritual person, structured worship itself at a dependable time and place adds a great deal of order to life, as well as your personal spiritual activities. If you pray, do it routinely. If you go for walks or exercise, add some order and structure to make it a routine thing. Anything that is predicable settles us down.

3. Examine your belief systems
One of the most effective ways that there is of dealing with fear is to listen to what goes on inside your head and find out the “catastrophizing” kinds of things you tell yourself. Many people do not know that they are saying things to themselves like “we are all going to die,” “this is only going to get worse,” or I will never have a normal life again.” There is no end to the scary things or beliefs that people can find themselves thinking and not even be aware of. So, listen to yourself. You might even write them down, and then refute them with more rational beliefs. “Some might die, but not everyone. In fact, there are a lot of people flying every day, and opening mail every day safely.” “This is unlikely to get worse because now we are taking much more precaution and measures to contain it and eliminate it.” “I might not have exactly the same life I had, but I am able to deal with the few inconveniences that have come. I can enjoy everything that I used to enjoy.” There are much more rational thoughts than the ones that create debilitating fear, and you must refute the frightening ones with reality.

4. Don’t avoid life, go for it 
Research has shown over and over that the worst thing we can do is avoid doing the things that frighten us, unless they are just too overwhelming and cause someone to be unable to function. But most fear is not like that. It does not make us have a breakdown, it just makes us very uneasy. Still, one of the best things that you can do to eliminate the fear is to do the thing you are afraid of. Flying will get easier each time you fly. Going to arena events will get more comfortable the more you go. And on and on. For the most part, we are better off facing our fears as the best way to get over them. Get a supportive friend or loved one to accompany you, and live your life. You will gain a feeling of mastery over the fear, and find that courage is a tasty fruit of you efforts. So, get back on the horse.

5. Find good models
Remember when you were in school and you did not want to study with the person who was freaked out about the test? This situation is a lot like that. Fear can be learned from others, and so can courage. Stay around people who are facing life like normal, and just watch them. Hang out with the ones who are going about life in a fulfilling way. The more you are around these strong people, the more you will become like them. Your mind will say, “Oh, he or she is not afraid. I guess I don’t have to be either.”

6. Learn relaxation techniques
Don’t give in to coping methods that will only make you worse, like substance abuse, overeating, impulsive sex, etc. Instead, learn and practice proven relaxation techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, spiritual activities like prayer, exercise, and the like. Go to a bookstore and find a good book on relaxation training and practice it. It will help the fear, and also be good for your health.

7. Develop a spiritual life
Faith, and values that do not change with circumstances. When the things in life that can change and be destroyed are in tumult, we all need to be more connected to things that transcend day to day life. We need to be grounded in things that never change, like strong values, freedom, patriotism, love for others, and a spiritual life. Research has shown that spiritual beliefs and a meaningful relationship with a higher power are advantageous to our health and well-being. Faith overcomes fear. This might be a good time to deepen your own spiritual life, or do some honest seeking if you do not have one. The more you are grounded in values, contributions, relationships, and spiritual truths that outlast life itself, you will be lifted to a higher plane and what goes on around you will be more in perspective.

8. If needed, get professional help
Sometimes fear and anxiety can get to the point where it just becomes unmanageable by yourself, and interferes significantly with your ability to function. That is the time to get help. Get a good referral for a psychologist, or counselor who has experience in helping people overcome fear. You might be experiencing fear and anxiety from other sources that this situation has brought to the surface, and that is why it is so bad. Current trauma can activate past trauma, and there is good treatment for that.

9. Make it OK to have some fear
Like we saw above, some fear is normal. Some anxiety is normal, and even more than “some” is normal at times like these. When people get into trouble is when they begin to get afraid of the fear. Fear of the fear leads to panic attacks. So, if you feel anxiety, give yourself permission just to let it be there. Don’t get afraid of it. It will pass, and all it can do is make you uncomfortable for a little while. The more permission you have to have some fear, the less apt you are to develop a fear of the fear.

10. Lastly, avoid information overload
Some information helps us feel secure because it keeps us informed. Overexposure to the same frightening information, however, tends to create more anxiety than it resolves.

Hard times come and go, and the United States has seen many in its history. And the reality of that history is that this country is a country that is founded on things that do outlast whatever crisis it faces. Freedom, liberty, justice, the value of life and each person’s right to pursue it are the lasting values that will take us through this crisis as well. We will overcome this, and be even better than we are now. So, in the meantime, while it is unsettling, have courage, faith, hope and love. Those are the things that last, and as all of America grounds itself in those, we will last too. So, take courage, this too will pass.

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