Select Page

The profound effects of trauma have been recognized since ancient times, particularly in literature related to combat and disaster. There is nothing new about human tragedy and the long-term effects of overwhelming stress on the mind, body, and soul of the victims.

What is new is the contribution that both science and religion are making on our understanding and response to these effects.

The field of traumatic stress studies and research is a relatively new and rapidly growing field. For example, the main interdisciplinary organization focusing on the effects of trauma, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS),  was only founded as recently as 1985.

Why is it important for our Baha’i Institutions to understand how trauma affects people?

The NSA of the USA has asked us to be sensitive for the possibility of prior exposure to severe violence, as this may exacerbate the effects of domestic violence.

Be sensitive for the possibility of prior exposure to severe violence, such as a personal or family history of trauma from torture, mutilation, war atrocities, gang rape, arson, bombings, lynchings, or other extreme forms of violence. Prior exposure to other forms of violence may exacerbate the effects of domestic violence.  (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence, p. 94)

A traumatic experience overwhelms the capacity of the central nervous system to process information in the normal way.

Responses to trauma are biologically based, complicated, and designed to provide us with the capacity to respond to immediate threat. However, human beings are very complex and interconnected. As a result, every aspect of our lives can be affected by an overwhelming, confusing, frightening, damaging experience.

Symptoms of Trauma in Children

Some common reactions to trauma and ways to help your child deal with them:

  • Many children may try to return to an earlier stage when they felt safer and more cared for. Younger children may wet the bed or want a bottle; older children may fear being alone. It’s important to be patient and comforting if your child responds this way.
  • Thinking the event is their fault. Children younger than seven or eight tend to think that if something goes wrong, it must be their fault—no matter how irrational this may sound to an adult. Be sure your child understands that he did not cause the event.
  • Sleep disorders. Some children have difficulty falling to sleep; others wake frequently or have troubling dreams. If you can, give your child a stuffed animal, soft blanket, or flashlight to take to bed. Try spending extra time together in the evening, doing quiet activities or reading. Be patient. It may take a while before your child can sleep through the night again.
  • Feeling helpless. Being active in a campaign to prevent an event like this one from happening again, writing thank you letters to people who have helped, and caring for others can bring a sense of hope and control to everyone in the family.

These symptoms and feelings typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading as the trauma is processed.

Children Under 5:

  • Facial expressions of fear
  • Clinging to parent or caregiver
  • Crying or screaming
  • Whimpering or trembling
  • Moving aimlessly
  • Becoming immobile
  • Returning to behaviors common to being younger
  • Thumb sucking
  • Bedwetting
  • Being afraid of the dark

Young children’s reactions are strongly influenced by parent reactions to the event.

Children Age 6 to 11

Children in this range may:

  • Isolate themselves
  • Become quiet around friends, family, and teachers
  • Have nightmares or other sleep problems
  • Become irritable or disruptive
  • Have outbursts of anger
  • Start fights
  • Be unable to concentrate
  • Refuse to go to school
  • Complain of physical problems
  • Develop unfounded fears
  • Become depressed
  • Become filled with guilt
  • Feel numb emotionally
  • Do poorly with school and homework.

Adolescents Age 12 to 17

  • Flashbacks to the event
  • Avoiding reminders of the event
  • Drug, alcohol, tobacco use and abuse
  • Antisocial behavior i.e. disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behavior
  • Physical complaints
  • Nightmares or other sleep problems
  • Isolation or confusion
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts

Adolescents may also feel guilty for not preventing injury or deaths.   They also may have thoughts of revenge.

Symptoms of Trauma in Adults

People respond to traumatic events in different ways. Often, there are no visible signs, but people may have serious emotional reactions. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), shock and denial shortly after the event is a normal reaction. They are often used to protect oneself from the emotional impact of the event. The victim may feel numb or detached, and may not feel the event’s full intensity right away. (APA, 2011)

Once a person has moved past the initial shock, responses to a traumatic event may vary.

In the Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence we read:  

Abuse has been implicated in numerous studies as a causal factor for both adults and children in a diverse range of mental, emotional, and physical ills.  (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence, p. 28)

So let’s look at what some of these ills might look like.

Physical symptoms of trauma may include:

  1. sleep disorders such as insomnia or nightmares
  2. being startled easily
  3. racing heartbeat
  4. aches and pains
  5. fatigue
  6. edginess and agitation
  7. muscle tension
  8. changes in appetite
  9. physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches and nausea
  10. worsening of an existing medical condition 

Emotional and psychological symptoms of trauma may include:

  1. shock, denial or disbelief
  1. guilt, shame, self-blame
  1. feeling sad
  1. feeling hopeless, helpless despair
  1. confusion and difficulty concentrating
  1. feeling disconnected or numb
  1. irritability
  1. sudden, dramatic mood changes
  1. anxiety and nervousness
  1. anger
  1. depression
  1. flashbacks or repeated memories of the event
  1. Intrusive thoughts that go round and round on the “hamster wheel” of the mind
  1. difficulty concentrating
  1. intense fear that the traumatic event will recur, particularly around anniversaries of the event
  1. withdrawal and isolation from day-to-day activities
  1. fear of being alone
  1. risk-taking behaviours
  1. addictions (sex, gambling, drug, alcohol, tobacco use and abuse)
  1. antisocial behavior i.e. disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behavior
  1. suicidal thoughts
  1. thoughts of revenge

If you are struggling with responses like these seek support from people you trust as a priority.

It’s potentially damaging to encourage a “get tough and get back to work” philosophy as an exclusive response to trauma, because a large body of scientific research has demonstrated that emotional suppression can take a very large toll on physical, emotional, and social well-being and may be a major contributor to many kinds of physical disorders.

The House of Justice has agreed:

The time taken away from work beneficial to society would doubtless be more than compensated for by the increase in effective-ness with which you will be able to perform such functions when your healing is more advanced. (From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 22 December, 1992)

I loved discovering that even Shoghi Effendi demonstrated some of these reactions to his own trauma!

Many times when Shoghi Effendi was intensely distressed, I saw him go to bed, refusing to eat or drink, refusing to talk, rolled under his covers, unable to do anything but agonize, like someone beaten to the ground by heavy rain; this condition sometimes lasted for days, until forces within himself would adjust the balance and set him on his feet again. He would be lost in a world of his own where no one could follow.  (Rúhíyyih Rabbani, The Priceless Pearl, p.45)

On days when I too was in bed in this condition, I remembered how much he had accomplished, despite sometimes needing to take time to process and heal.

Long-Lasting Effects of Trauma

Following a traumatic event, or repeated trauma, people can react in many different ways, experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. There is no “right” or “wrong” way for people to think, feel, or respond to trauma.  It’s important to understand so we don’t judge our own reactions or those of other people. Your responses are NORMAL reactions for you to ABNORMAL events.  Just because you’re feeling them today doesn’t mean you will be stuck in them forever.  Identifying them is the first step to being able to detach and see things through God’s eyes.

  1.  Trauma can produce ongoing flashbacks or intrusive thoughts, images, sounds, smells & sensations in the body. 

Scenarios may go over and over and over in your mind.  You can’t seem to stop them.  When you try they keep intruding and taking over your thoughts.  You are likely to feel the impact physically through anything from a racing heart, sweating and difficulty breathing, to nausea, a dry mouth, tight chest, back ache and head ache.

 You may feel as though it were happening right now.  It may be in a nightmare which you wake up from feeling full of terror or pain which feels unbearable, or in fear for your life.  It may happen in the day when an image, a sound or smell or sensation in the body just overwhelms you.  You cannot control these flashbacks.  You can’t stop them from happening and you don’t know when they might happen.

For more information please see: The Lies We Tell Ourselves

  1. Trauma may leave us feeling cut off, tired and functioning poorly

It may feel as though you are in a dreamlike bubble, isolated emotionally from people around you.  You may feel like your ‘old self’ is gone out of reach, your normal range of feelings and interests are cut off and you cannot imagine a future.

Your sleep pattern might be disturbed.  You may feel exhausted a lot of the time.  Your energy is used up with the attempt to survive.  You may sleep many long hours or you may not be able to sleep, tossing and turning with everything racing in your head.  Or you may just feel ill rather than going over the thoughts in your mind.

You may also be snappy and irritable or even aggressive.  You may keep forgetting ordinary things and find it difficult to concentrate.  You may jump easily and find it hard to relax.  You may feel withdrawn and lack interest in life around you.  Your appetite may be disturbed and you either cannot eat as usual or you cannot stop eating.  Your sexual desire may be disturbed.  You may find yourself with no interest at all or you may crave more physical and sexual contact than usual.

  1. Trauma might lead to taking unaccustomed risks 

You may be taking unaccustomed risks like driving too fast or having unsafe sex.  You may feel alarmed that you have lost control of yourself and worry that you might not be able to regain it.

  1. Trauma may lead to avoidance and estrangement

You might find yourself avoiding all thoughts, reminders and people associated with the bad thing that has happened.  You are full of determination to put it behind you and get on with your life.  You don’t want to experience the pain of engaging with it.

For more information please read Estrangement within Families 

  1. Trauma may rob us of our basic sense of safety and security in the world.

Research has demonstrated that maintaining a certain level of “positive illusions” is associated with health. Under normal conditions we make certain assumptions about our lives that enable us to get through our everyday lives without being overwhelmed with fear: that we are safe, that other people can be trusted, that life is predictable. On most days these necessary illusions are borne out to be true. But on a day when something unexpected happens, trauma shatters these assumptions and suddenly the world is not safe, nor predictable, and other people cannot be trusted – or we don’t know who can and who cannot be trusted. This is one of the most critical psychologically destructive aspects of trauma because we rely on this basic sense of security in order for our minds to function properly. Without safety, it is difficult to think clearly and we develop problems in managing our emotions. This can lead to difficulties in working, in our relationships, in our self-care, and ultimately can lead to more violence directed at ourselves, our families, or other people. This can cause a lot of interpersonal problems which destroy marriages; and cause problems when dealing with Baha’i Administration.

In the Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence we read:

Be sensitive to the person’s perception of authority figures. For example, some people may have experienced violence and atrocities in their homeland at the hands of government authorities, making them fearful of accepting government services. Others may have experienced abuses of power by police and may be reluctant to report abuse to the police since they fear maltreatment either of themselves or of the abuser by the police.  (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence, p. 94)

Because the teenage years are a time when young people normally initiate the process of establishing independence, they may be reluctant to seek help, may feel that they have no one to turn to for help, or may be embarrassed or afraid to admit to anyone that they are in trouble.  (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence, p. 99)

For more information, please see Dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder in the Baha’i Community

  1. Trauma may overwhelm our capacity to process information in the normal way.

Our responses to trauma are biologically based, complicated, and designed to provide us with the capacity to respond to immediate threat. However, human beings are very complex and interconnected. As a result, every aspect of our lives can be affected by an overwhelming, confusing, frightening, damaging experience.

For more information, please see Fight, Flight or Freeze   

  1. Trauma may stop time at the point of the traumatic event.

There’s no going back; but there’s no going forward either.  Life demands that regardless of what has happened, we have to go on working, living, raising children, making a living, paying our bills, running our offices. The fundamental problem is that life keeps moving even though time has stopped for the trauma victim at the point of the traumatic event. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of trauma is that it freezes people, as in a stop-action film sequence. There is no going back to before the event, but it seems that there is no moving ahead either. Think of your trauma survivors as stuck behind what appears to them to be an impenetrable wall. They can see you, see people moving around them, but they are frozen on the spot. Their brains, their bodies, their minds, and their spirits are trapped.

  1. Trauma may leave victims believing it was their fault. 

Trauma which happens to children younger than seven or eight results in their thinking that if something goes wrong, it must be their fault—no matter how irrational this may sound to an adult. They may extrapolate this into their adult lives, blaming themselves for everyone else’s actions.

It’s not immediately obvious, but it’s common for people to feel guilty about the fact they’ve survived.  You might be struggling with it.  It’s especially difficult when people around say you are lucky or blessed to have survived when you feel anything but.  In fact you are likely just to feel bad.

For more information, please see Healthy and Unhealthy Guilt and Shame   

  1. Trauma may cause a loss of trust

If a person’s trauma was at the hands of someone in trust (parents, authority figures), they will have a hard time trusting Baha’i Institutions:

Be sensitive to the person’s perception of authority figures. For example, some people may have experienced violence and atrocities in their homeland at the hands of government authorities, making them fearful of accepting government services. Others may have experienced abuses of power by police and may be reluctant to report abuse to the police since they fear maltreatment either of themselves or of the abuser by the police.  (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence, p. 94)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

A condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can sometimes occur after a person experiences a life-threatening event or witnesses a death.  PTSD can cause an intense physical and emotional response to any thought or memory of the event.

PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that affects stress hormones and changes the body’s response to stress. It can cause an intense physical and emotional response to any thought or memory of the event. It can last for months or years following trauma.

Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD can afflict persons of any age, gender or background. Those most at risk are victims or witnesses of abuse, molestation, assault or attempted assault, rape, torture, natural disasters, severe accidents, or terrorism, persons who have lived in areas of prolonged conflict or persecution (including members of minority populations in the United States), prisoners or former prisoners, persons who have been in combat, and those whose jobs bring them into contact with life-threatening situations or their aftermath.  (USA- NSA, Guidelines for Local Spiritual Assemblies, Chapter 14, p. 14)

PTSD can occur at any age; and after events such as:

  • Assault
  • Car accidents
  • Domestic abuse
  • Natural disasters
  • Prison stay
  • Sexual assault
  • Terrorism
  • War

There are four types of PTSD symptoms:

  1. Reliving the event, which disturbs day-to-day activity
  • Flashback episodes in which the event seems to be happening again and again
  • Repeated upsetting memories of the event
  • Repeated nightmares of the event
  • Strong, uncomfortable reactions to situations that remind you of the event
  1. Avoidance
  • Emotional numbing or feeling as though you do not care about anything
  • Feeling detached
  • Not able to remember important parts of the event
  • Not interested in normal activities
  • Showing less of your moods
  • Avoiding places, people, or thoughts that remind you of the event
  • Feeling like you have no future
  1. Hyperarousal
  • Always scanning your surroundings for signs of danger (hypervigilance)
  • Not able to concentrate
  • Startling easily
  • Feeling irritable or having outbursts of anger
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  1. Negative thoughts and mood or feelings
  • Constant guilt about the event, including survivor guilt
  • Blaming others for the event
  • Not being able to recall important parts of the event
  • Loss of interest in activities or other people

People with this disorder require strong social support and ongoing therapy.

Because the symptoms of PTSD and other trauma reactions can impact how a trauma survivor feels and acts, traumatic experiences that happen to one member of a family affect everyone else in the family. When trauma reactions are severe and go on for some time without treatment, they can cause major problems for the person and his or her family. Sometimes, in response to overwhelming trauma, individuals resort to substance abuse, which can complicate or exacerbate the problems. (USA- NSA, Guidelines for Local Spiritual Assemblies, Chapter 14, p. 14)

 For more information, please see:  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

 Why do some people respond one way; and others another?

Experts do not know why some people experience PTSD after a traumatic event while others do not. According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM), a history of trauma, along with other physical, genetic, psychological and social factors may play a role in developing PTSD. (NLM, 2012)

What do the Baha’i Writings teach us about why some people respond one way; and others another?

Some specific disorders tend to improve over time and respond to treatment while others may not. As with other health conditions, personality disorders vary in degree of severity and people with milder degrees of disorder may function reasonably well in most situations. (USA- NSA, Guidelines for Local Spiritual Assemblies, Chapter 14, p. 14)

It may be due to capacity:

The portion of some might lie in the palm of a man’s hand, the portion of others might fill a cup, and of others even a gallon-measure.  (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 8)

Or a genetic predisposition:

…for the children inherit the weakness and debility of their parents.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.213)

Or multiple mental disorders or medical conditions:

As with many health conditions, mental disorders fall on a continuum from so mild as to be almost undetectable to very severe. The degree to which a particular individual’s conduct may be affected varies accordingly and may improve or worsen over time, depending on many factors. Some individuals may suffer from more than one mental disorder or a complicating general medical condition at the same time. (USA- NSA, Guidelines for Local Spiritual Assemblies, Chapter 14, p. 13)

Problems of personality disorder may be complicated by medical conditions, substance abuse and/or mental illness. (USA- NSA, Guidelines for Local Spiritual Assemblies, Chapter 14, p. 14)

Or difficulties with substance abuse, which disrupts brain chemistry and affects behaviour:

Furthermore, persons with mental disorders may have difficulties with substance abuse, which further disrupts brain chemistry and affects behavior.  (USA- NSA, Guidelines for Local Spiritual Assemblies, Chapter 14, p. 13)

Or for cultural reasons

It’s important for Baha’i Institutions to understand a person’s culture, race and ethnicity.  In some cultures, various forms of abuse are tolerated or have not been considered abuse and may even be regarded by both genders as rightful forms of discipline or as expressions of caring:

Explore the meanings of abuse and battering to the persons involved since culture, race, and ethnicity influence how these terms are defined. For example, in some cultures, various forms of abuse are tolerated or have not been considered abuse and may even be regarded by both genders as rightful forms of discipline or as expressions of caring. Nevertheless, cultural acceptance does not render abusive behaviors harmless or legal.  (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence, p. 93)

How long does it take to recover from trauma?

For the majority of people, experiencing a single event, over time, most of the reactions will go back to normal, though it will also change us permanently because it becomes part of our history, part of our ever-unfolding life experience, that can never be undone.  We can’t erase it, but we can choose how to react to it and how to incorporate it into the narrative of our lives.

For those who have experienced multiple traumatic events over a lifetime, they will remain vulnerable to the effects of new trauma in the future. Later reminders of the original  trauma may trigger responses for many years ahead.

For more information please see:

Will the Sorrow and Pain Ever Stop?

Healing Has its Own Timetable 

How has this helped you understand the effects of trauma?  Post your comments below!