Healing Acute Trauma: Dare to Be Human

Growing up in Israel, I survived four wars. The trauma I carry from those times resurfaced for me and many others during the brutal attack by Hamas on Israel. All of my family and friends have been deeply affected by this tragedy. It’s difficult to put the depth of the pain into words.

While I feel a sense of safety living 6,000 miles away, my past traumas have been re-awakened. Daily conversations with my daughter and loved ones living in Israel bring up memories. They echo the important lessons I’ve learned over the years, particularly in helping people heal from acute trauma.

The Many Faces of Trauma

Trauma is an unwelcome guest that takes many forms. Primary trauma is the firsthand experience of a shocking event, leaving its immediate imprint on the person who lived through it. Secondary trauma is the silent upset that family or professionals can experience while helping the primary victim heal. And then comes Collective trauma, a distressing event that leaves a wound on an entire community and society, binding them together in a shared experience of pain and recovery.

Acute trauma is a type of psychological trauma that results from a single, distressing event. This could be a car accident, natural disaster, physical assault, or any other sudden, harmful event that poses an immediate threat. The event may cause intense fear, a sense of helplessness, or horror, triggering a traumatic response. Those who live in times of war often experience a traumatic response that is prolonged because the threat is constant.

As professionals, therapists, coaches, and healers, we are often faced with situations that challenge our understanding of trauma and its impact.

We’re in the midst of global disasters, wars, and collective traumas, trying to provide support to those affected. In times of acute trauma, when a person’s circumstances are extremely dangerous (or, in the case of Israel, many people are under threat), our primary role as professionals is to create a sense of safety. Achieving this in times of crisis goes beyond our professional boundaries and requires us to tap into our humanity. It demands us to be more than just therapists or healers; it calls us to be fellow human beings, offering ourselves as immediate resources for those in need.

The Power of Togetherness

The healing journey begins with the simple yet profound act of letting people know they are not alone. A feeling of togetherness can be incredibly powerful, helping individuals navigate the trauma they experienced. As professionals, we must remind ourselves that our duty extends beyond the boundaries of therapy and into the realm of human connection.

In times like these, the most meaningful insight we can offer is this: You are not alone.

When it comes to healing acute trauma, we need to adjust the “rules” of professional distance. With proper consent, now is the time to offer physical comfort to our clients-touching their shoulder, giving them a hug, even shedding tears with them. Our first goal in these situations is to help the person connect to their internal resources and even offer ourselves as their immediate resource.

Lessons From the Frontlines

The entire nation of Israel is grappling with primary, secondary, and collective trauma. Friends and colleagues who are experienced therapists report that traditional trauma healing techniques are falling short. Instead, a more human approach is needed—one that acknowledges the shared experience of trauma and reinforces the fact that no one is alone in their struggle.

Unfortunately, professionals who intervene in acute trauma situations cannot always promise the affected person that they are entirely safe. In times of war, danger is the only certainty. Since safety is the person’s highest priority, professionals need to meet them in the safest place possible and have a Plan B if the location suddenly becomes unsafe.

We want our message to be clear: “I am here to be with you and to take care of your safety.”

One of the first therapists I ever worked with was not trauma-informed. If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have worked with her. Even though she didn’t address my trauma wisely, she ended up being one of my greatest teachers. The most significant lesson I learned from her was the importance of showing empathy to your clients or patients in the present moment. Her lack of compassion made sessions with her particularly challenging. If only she knew how hurtful it was to not acknowledge my pain. This experience taught me how crucial it is to show empathy, to put yourself in the client’s shoes, and view the therapeutic space through their lens.

A Heart-to-Heart Message

“You’re not alone,” was powerfully demonstrated in a recent Zoom conversation I attended.

Dr. Erwin D. Yalom, writer, psychiatrist, and author of many best-sellers I’ve read and admired, such as “When Nietzsche Cried” and “The Gift of Therapy”, and his partner, Sakino M. Sternberg, agreed to show their support to Israel in this online event.

At 93 years old, Dr. Yalom appeared vulnerable, raw, sensitive, and wise on the screen. Beside him, Sakino, a psychotherapist and expert in working with trauma, embodied compassion and profound empathy. Together, they held each other’s hands and opened their hearts to thousands of people from around the world.

Their direction was clear: Dare to be human.

They reminded us of the healing power of humanity. Their words and gestures underscored the importance of being human first and professionals second.

It’s not the first time I received valuable guidance from Dr. Yalom. His books hold a special place on my bookshelf. Years ago, from his book The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients, this sentence struck me, “Look out the other’s window. Try to see the world as your patient sees it.”

This is a constant reminder that even when I remain detached from my clients’ stories (to maintain the perspective needed to help them), I should always remember that the person sitting across from me, or on the screen before me, is a human being who needs compassion.

Dr. Yalom’s words are a powerful message of our shared humanity. Remembering this is particularly crucial when helping individuals cope with acute trauma. In moments of profound pain and distress, it’s easy for professionals to focus solely on clinical approaches or therapeutic techniques. However, we must never forget that at the heart of this work is a human needing understanding, empathy, and connection.

Acute trauma can strip away a person’s sense of safety and normalcy, leaving them feeling isolated and overwhelmed. Our roles as professionals extend beyond providing interventions or solutions. We are meant to witness and hold space for pain, validate experiences, and assure our clients and patients that they are not alone.

By looking out of our patients’ windows, we are better equipped to meet them where they are in a shared human experience. This empathetic approach not only fosters a stronger therapeutic relationship but also creates a safe space where healing can truly begin.

One last quote from Dr. Yalom: “To care for another individual means to know and to experience the other as fully as possible.”

If you are interested in reading more about my approach to trauma, please read my previous blog: Beyond Talk Therapy: A Holistic Approach to Trauma Healing. If you resonate with my words and feel I can be of help, learn about how you can work with me. I would be delighted to guide you on your healing journey.

If you are a fellow professional, be it a therapist, coach, or any other form of practitioner, and you would like to join a community dedicated to holistic approaches to trauma healing, let me know here.

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