It’s PTSD Awareness Day, the focal point of “PTSD Awareness Month.” What have you learned about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during June? What have you learned about resilience, that seemingly elusive quality that actually protects us from the effects of traumatic stress?
Clearly, the point of designating an “awareness” day or month (an action taken by the United States Senate) is to educate the general public. People suffering from PTSD are already acutely aware of the often-debilitating symptoms and challenges presented by their condition. On the other hand, there are very good reasons for educating the community at large.
One of these is so there will be a wider support network for those who need help. But if helping others doesn’t particularly interest you, perhaps it will interest you to know that you, too—given a natural disaster or other local crisis—may be at risk for PTSD. Especially, research suggests, if you aren’t the kind of person given to helping others. [See: Resilience in Trying Times: A Result of Positive Actions.]
Humans are happier when they do the right thing, say the researchers. It also strengthens their resilience and helps them overcome difficulties. But what about people with PTSD? Does the principle work for them too? In fact, says a study from the current issue of the journal Psychological Trauma published by the APA’s Division 56, there’s an interesting silver lining for people who have experienced trauma: they tend to be more prosocial than average and perceive more meaning in their life—even as they have more PTSD symptoms. Their traumatic experiences actually lead them to care for and help others more than those who haven’t experienced trauma.
In fact, wrote the researchers, when people said their volunteer work was related to a life experience, the most common motivations were negative life events. . . . (e.g., ‘My mother was hit and badly injured by a drunk driver. Ever since, I have volunteered for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.’)”
“Our findings,” they wrote, “consistently indicate that trauma exposure is positively associated with engaging in prosocial [helping] behavior. Individuals who reported experiencing more traumatic events in their lifetime reported engaging in more helping behaviors during a 2-week period and more volunteer activities annually than those who had experienced fewer traumas.”
That leaves the rest of us with a lot to live up to. If you have a problem with the word “victim,” consider the fact that “victims” of trauma often show more responsibility and have more helping behaviors than the average Joe. Consider that the word “victim” simply describes an experience at one point in someone’s life. It does not describe what a person is. And perhaps . . . if we look down our noses at someone who has been victimized (and make no mistake, the horrors they under go are victimizations). . . we are missing an opportunity to help. To lay the foundations for the resilience that could be our own saving grace during the next community crisis: whether that means (in Southern California) an earthquake or our own private family loss.
PTSD Awareness Day is over. What did you learn?