Three Steps to Trauma Recovery Can Also Aid Us in Older Adulthood

Recently I had occasion to read a summary of the three steps to trauma recovery as expounded by Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, a Harvard psychiatrist. These steps can be helpful those who have experienced some trauma in their lives, such as physical violence or disaster, which has left them with PTSD. Even those who do not suffer from PTSD, among them older adults, can benefit from these steps, especially if they have suffered the death of a loved one, or serious physical or mental illness.

The first step is to regain “a sense of safety”. This includes helping people to understand why they may experience jumpiness or panic attacks, or why they have particular reactions to certain circumstances. When we begin to understand the symptoms, then they become far less frightening. When this happens we can start to gain some control over our situation. For example, an elderly person who fears suffering from another fall, can reduce the feelings of being unsafe and gain some control over his/her/their situation by starting to go for walks again, perhaps accompanied initially by a friend. Healing, then, is literally small steps away.

Another step to healing involves retelling our story. For PTSD patients, this means going over the details of the traumatic experience we suffered, and putting the entire memory into words so that we can then begin to mourn the loss that the trauma brought. For all of us, particularly older adults, it is well known that life review is of great benefit to people suffering from depression. This is significant because we know that the rate of depression in those over the age of 65 increases by at least 25% over that of the rest of the population.

Several recent scientific studies have shown that talking about our life experiences lowers blood pressure and strengthens the immune system. Plus, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence in the published scientific literature that affirms that “life review” is of tremendous help to people experiencing grief. Not only does it lower levels of depression, but it is also found to increase problem-solving skills and self-esteem while assisting in the grief process.[1]

For those who are engaged in caring for an elderly relative, life review can be a powerful tool in assisting the one who needs care. This is what Rabbi Dayle Friedman calls “sacred listening.”[2] By listening to another’s story, you honour that individual. Such listening also goes a long way toward creating a safe space for both the caregiver and the one receiving the care to express emotions without feeling that they are being judged. It is natural to experience some distress when we watch the decline of those we have loved and looked up to all our lives. Inviting them to share their story with us can provide an antidote to the sorrow we may feel by allowing us to consider what in this person’s story we can hold on to and focus on the blessing their life has been. What is their legacy to us?

The third step to healing is reestablishing a normal life. In this stage traumatic remembrances do not erupt out of the blue or threaten our sense of equilibrium or self-control. We are able to re-visit them when we wish and lay them aside just as easily. We can begin to trust our relationships, gain some sense of mastery over our world, and find new meaning.

[1] James Pennebaker, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (New York: The Guilford Press, 1997.)

[2] Friedman, Jewish Visions for Aging, 120–123, 135.

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