What Can the 9 11 Survivors Teach Us About Traumatic Loss?
For the thousands of 9 11 survivors yesterday was a very big day. It was the 10th anniversary of the 9 11 attacks. In the coming days those who participated in memorial events will be unpacking what it means for each of them personally. But I believe that their experiences can be enlightening to those who are trying to figure out how to help someone with depression.
The 9 11 survivors include wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, coworkers, good friends, and even more relatives. How many of these have suffered clinical depression in varying degrees? The exact number doesn’t matter. So many people’s lives plummeted into despair and traumatic loss. And, indeed, this is what so many of them share in common: the life-shattering experience of traumatic loss. For the more fortunate 9 11 survivors, there has been an individual who cares.
It has a grief that is both indescribably sad and terrifying. Many of them have been striving for 10 years with various causes to make sure that the death of their loved one was not in vain. Many more have had their lives stalled by questions such as, “Why did 9 11 happen to me in this way?” or “What is meaning of this awful event?” But among the gifts they have given all of us are lessons about how to help someone with depression. Both the public and shared nature of the 9 11 tragedy contain a unique opportunity for us all to understand the hidden connection between trauma and depression as well as tips for how to help someone with depression.
Triggers: The Devil is in the Details
One of these lessons has to do with notorious feature of traumatic experiences: triggers. Traumatic memories are stored in the brain in a way that makes frozen and fragmented while at the same time being saturated with intense emotions such as grief. As people slowly find their footing during the stages of bereavement, a fragile ability to cope emerges. But the intense, overwhelming emotions of grief remain just underneath the surface of every thought, conversations, and activity. These soul-crushing emotions seem to collect in a kind of force-field that gathers around particular details.
Yes, the devil is in the details. It could be a sound, a smell, a memory of lamp, a piece of scratch paper, or even clear blue skies. It’s often misunderstood because it is unique to each individual. But the trigger mechanism is the same for all: when daily events include a detail that resembles the original memory, the deep, overwhelming grief is unleashed. Sometimes it happens as suddenly as a mousetrap responds to one soft, silent misstep of an unsuspecting mouse. If we understand how this works, we have have taken a big step toward learning how to help someone with depression.
Two Lessons on Triggers for Learning How to Help Someone with Depression Caused by Trauma
Actually, in order to learn how to help someone with depression triggers, one must learn two things. First, it’s important to understand the power of spring-loaded emotions and the spinoff feelings of helplessness they provoke when someone is ambushed by a traumatic memory. If you don’t understand this, then you may mistakenly conclude that the person you care about is just being dramatic. But it’s not about drama; it’s about trauma.
Second, you must find out the specific triggers that are unique to that individual. Was she standing in the checkout line of a grocery store when the call came? Was the smell of roast beef coming from the kitchen when he realized that his son was gone?
Helping Someone with Depression by Becoming a Little Smarter
Anyone who has been involved helping someone with depression knows that it has moments of high anxiety, frustration, and helplessness. But if we care enough to learn a little about triggers, we can be more understanding and less confused while helping someone with depression.