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Is it ever appropriate to Compare Traumas?


Most days I have literally no idea what day it is. I’m sure you can relate to that blurry feeling of each day running into the next. It’s been months like this. Monotonous.

For some reason, I woke up this morning and felt acutely aware of what day it is.

Nineteen years ago to the day, I still remember the panic and fear as I watched the news reports about a plane crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I remember thinking to myself, “was this an accident? Was it on purpose?” as my heart started to race, confusion and anxiety coursed through my veins.

I don’t live anywhere near New York, but I started worrying about all of the people I love who lived and worked in Manhattan, which was actually quite a few people at the time. I attempted to call each one of them, one by one… and every call resulted in a busy signal. I couldn’t take it! Then all of a sudden, there were other suspected terrorist attacks reported in different cities. I can’t begin to explain my feelings of panic and dread. Was it rational? Who cares? When we are triggered, it doesn’t need to be rational.

I was newly married at the time and expecting my first child. My husband was in college at the time, and when I tried to call him on his cell, it was also a busy signal. My heart dropped to the floor and so did I. I began whaling uncontrollably with my big baby belly on the cold ceramic floor. I had convinced myself that there was another terrorist attack at my husband’s college and my soon-to-be-born baby would be fatherless. I don’t know how long I cried on the floor, but it felt like an eternity. Finally my husband walked into the door, oblivious of my emotional roller coaster. Not knowing what he was walking into, he was so confused. He had merely turned off his phone during class and forgot to turn it back on. Since that time, when he doesn’t answer the phone or respond with a text message that he's OK, I still have anxious heart flutters to some extent, although not debilitating.

I was never in any personal danger, but the memories of 9/11 still haunt me.

So when I woke up this morning and realized what today was, I knew that I wanted to write something to share on the Jblog. But what? Could I sensitively and respectfully address the tragedy of 9/11 and maybe even tie it into our topic of the month #suicisidepreventionawareness ? I hesitated.

This was a deeply traumatic event for the people who lived through it first hand. Thousands of lives were lost and even more souls left to grieve this unfathomable nightmare. My personal experience with 9/11 was minimal. I literally just watched the event on the news. My husband was alive and was never in any real danger. When I finally got a hold of my friends and family in NY, miraculously, everyone I knew was safe.

So why was I so affected?

How do I write about this trauma, when it’s not really mine to write about?

What approach could I take that would lend meaning to the day given that I was not there and did not lose anyone I know personally?

So obviously, I googled “9/11 and mental health”. Maybe someone else would have some perspective that would be uplifting and inspire some context for me. The first thing that popped up was an article posted today on CNN called “9/11 and Covid-19: 2 mass trauma events with different recovery challenges”, by Shauna Springer, psychologist and author. In the article, Springer reported that people who she interviewed that have contracted Covid-19 are now experiencing both residual physical symptoms and emotional trauma. She went on to say;

“The coronavirus pandemic may be the most significant mass trauma event of the decade, and it's drawing parallels with another significant trauma — the September 11, 2001, attacks. The events of 9/11 have much to teach us about the impact of trauma.” Springer then continued to ask, “Does trauma impact us in the same way regardless of its source? Will our recovery journey be the same? What causes some trauma to forge human connection while other trauma destroys it?”

Whenever I hear people compare traumas, it irks me… but I was intrigued.

She claimed that 9/11 can give us insight into our current challenges with coronavirus. I'm not sure if I loved all of the article's points, but it did get me thinking ...

Let’s look at the similarities and differences between types of traumas and how they can impact us on a personal level, even if we have not experienced it first hand.

  • Any trauma can induce a prolonged "chronic threat response". Meaning that anyone who experienced it first hand or even associatively (by watching it happen on TV) can be thrown into hyper-arousal survival mode.

  • The trauma’s impact can last for many years and even decades. It can even change our genetic make-up… meaning that our descendants will be more prone to experience PTSD symptoms when experiencing any sort of real or perceived trauma.

  • Our brains cannot differentiate between real and perceived trauma. That’s why our bodies might feel symptomatic even though we are technically safe and sound.

  • The impacts of trauma do not always show up right away. We can be totally fine and then another seemingly insignificant or unrelated event can elicit symptoms of PTSD or other mental health challenges.

  • Unmet expectations of family and friends can make things harder for people who have experienced trauma. After 9/11, many survivors reported that they did not feel properly supported by their loved ones and community, which elicited feelings of isolation and abandonment. Coronavirus has spurred many of these similar feelings of loneliness, fear and disappointment. The feeling that people you once trusted to be there for you have abandoned you can carry with it an additional weight of grief.

  • Survivors of trauma might be OK some days, but be really not OK on other days. So needless to say, recovery can be very confusing - even to themselves. It’s never simple.

  • In a trauma like 9/11, carrying on was “a form of healthy defiance”. But with coronavirus many people are battling quietly and alone, distrustful of those who display defiance. As Springer said in the article, “Covid silently and ruthlessly divides and conquers, sowing helplessness, mutual distrust and crippling fear. Prolonged social isolation may be as dangerous as the virus for some Americans.”

  • Whether coronavirus or 9/11 were experienced first hand or not, there are many people who don’t “just get over it”. Like physical trauma, reinjury is much more difficult to recover from. Additionally, a family history of mental illness can make people more susceptible to symptoms associated with trauma.

While I grappled with whether this CNN article was completely appropriate or not, I did find many ideas validating and on point. It’s not really about comparing traumas to each other as much as it is recognizing that “trauma is trauma” and we all experience it in different ways.

So how can we take back control of this coronavirus upheaval, explore our own personal experiences with 9/11 (and any other associative trauma experiences) and be proactive with education during suicide prevention awareness month? Here are some ideas:

  1. Recognize that all feelings are valid. When I doubted my right to write about my personal experience with 9/11 I was actually invalidating a very real and personal experience, one that obviously needed to be processed and healed. Everyone will experience trauma differently. Some people can literally walk out of the 9/11 rubble mentally unscathed and some people can be haunted by the visuals of it on TV for the rest of their lives. We cannot compare the experiences, even though one is objectively more traumatic than the other.

  2. Think of ways you can personally take action while still showing respect for other people’s comfort zones and opinions that are different from yours. When we recognize that we can only do our best, but that does not mean that we will not contract the virus, we might be left feeling a hopeless lack of control. Find a way to take back control of something, anything, in order to regain an element of stability.

  3. Reach out to friends and family that might be lonely. Feelings of social isolation are rampant. Just reach out and say, “hey I was thinking about you today. Whenever you have a chance, let’s catch up.” Nobody likes to feel judged, so scrap the sympathetic gestures and comments. Empathy and understanding are key.

  4. It’s OK to hope again. Trauma can often leave us with feelings of hopelessness and despair. These feelings can start to feel like home after a while, the longer we sit with them, and many people are actually afraid to hope again. The good news is that there are so many new evidence based treatment options for trauma that did not exist nineteen years ago. If you are experiencing retraumatization or PTSD, try to allow yourself to hope again. Don’t give up. You have the chance to write a new chapter with new prospects for healing.

  5. Ask for Help. It’s brave and admirable. Trauma does not have to be a life sentence. There are people out there who can help you navigate your struggles. Don't give up.

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