Grief and Trauma

David Beckingham, Mental Health Specialist

The terrible events in London and Manchester this year have prompted discussion as to how best to give support to people bereaved, or who witnessed, or were affected in some way by psychological trauma. Indeed the President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Sir Simon Wessely has warned that overly prompt use of counselling to help people may be counter-productive. So I wanted to write about how traumatic events can affect us psychologically and emotionally, and what helps and what doesn’t help.

Shock and denial

What Sir Simon said was that for most people being able to talk to their own friends and family and get support from them was the best way to start coming to terms with awful events. He said it was understandable that anyone affected will be in a very disturbed and emotional state in the very early days after something like a terrorist attack, or a fire if they were caught up in it. People may experience such shock that they are unable to talk about the event, or may be in denial about what has happened. People need time to move through a process. That’s why Sir Simon has talked of being wary of counselling too soon after an event.

Defining traumatic events

So it helps to be able to understand what’s going on if we experience a traumatic event. First of all, diagnostic manuals define this as ‘the person experiencing, witnessing, or being confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others’.

Thoughts and feelings

Some of the effects of experiencing a traumatic event are similar to the effects of grief and loss. These thoughts and feelings don’t necessarily follow a pattern but include the following:
Anger, at the injustice of what has happened
Guilt, that the person survived or were in some way to blame
Embarrassed about the feelings the person is experiencing
Physical symptoms such as sleeplessness, headaches and many others. We know that many emotional states can bring about unpleasant physical effects

All of these are understandable and need to be worked through and will take time. Counselling is a way of being able to work through these with help, or getting help if you become ‘stuck’ in one or more of those thoughts and feelings. 

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