“Trauma” is one of those words we bandy about without thinking too much about what it means or how it affects people. In particular, I mean traumatic stress, a set of physiological, mental, and emotional responses to one or a series of horrible events. I don’t know much about trauma, but trauma healing is a big part of the work that HROC does, so I am trying to learn the basics. My sense is that we should all be a little more aware of it, whether our concern is returning Iraq War vets, domestic violence, the aftermath of earthquakes and tsunamis, or countries emerging from conflict like Burundi.

What we now in the US classify as “Post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) is a concept that has evolved over time from the notion of “hysteria” in the late 19th century that focused on women, to “shell-shock” during WWI, then reaching its present form following the Vietnam War. It can happen to both victims and perpetrators of violence.

According to Judith Herman, there are three main symptoms of PTSD. The first is being in a constant state of hyperarousal, a nonstop fight-or-flight response that continues long after the threat is gone. TheRoad from Rurengera second is recurring intrusive thoughts and dreams that are so intense the person feels as though they are actually re-living the event. These thoughts are not linear narratives – they contain images and sensations but are fundamentally broken and isolated from the rest of the person’s experience. The third symptom is “constriction,” a sort of paralysis of the mind where the individual avoids thoughts, experiences, and situations that could evoke the intrusive memory, and also can lead people to become numb to all emotions and experiences. The use of alcohol and other drugs by people affected by PTSD may be an attempt to self-medicate themselves to numb their way out of their feelings of helplessness and terror.

Interestingly, these symptoms can lead people either to avoid situations similar to their traumatic experience or to seek them out.

Finally, PTSD dramatically affects people’s ability to function within their family and society since it inhibits one’s ability to make plans for the future and violates one’s basic sense of self-worth. Victims often blame themselves and feel guilty. Traumatic experiences can throw into doubt our notion of basic trust and belief in the nature of the community and world as fundamentally safe and positive.

Whew! But the good news is that recovery from trauma is also possible. Our three day HROC trainings help people to understand traumatic stress and to deal with it. Following Herman, they follow a three-stage process that includes re-establishing a basic sense of trust, giving space for remembrance and mourning, and reconnecting the traumatized with their self and with others in their community.

For example, my coworker Adrien returned from a HROC workshop last week in Rurengera in which a number of people had very moving experiences. One commented (in Kirundi):

These teachings have helped me so much because all that I had lost had made me unable to care about the world. I could not undertake any activity that would require effort from me for I felt that all was futile. Since the war took away my dear loved ones, I decided to get drunk every single day. It is painful, I tell you! It is after participating in this workshop that I have stopped this bad behavior because I understood what was wrong with me. I promise you that I am going back to work instead.

I hope in the coming months to share with you in more depth the experiences of those who are working to overcome their traumatic experiences.