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Wunden der Seele: Was geschieht bei einem Trauma?

Wunden der Seele: Was geschieht bei einem Trauma?

Wounds of the soul: What happens in a trauma?

Soldiers in crisis areas or aid workers on disaster relief missions often have traumatic experiences. The images, sounds and smells remain with some people for the rest of their lives. What happens in our brain? And can trauma be healed?

Dieser Beitrag ist auch verfügbar auf: Deutsch

“I once woke up with my hands on my wife’s neck,” says war veteran Julian Goodrum. Since returning from his tour of duty in Iraq, the US soldier has never been the same. He has trouble sleeping, is plagued by nightmares, and has occasionally become violent.

Julian Goodrum suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. PTSD is a long-term consequence of trauma: the psyche reacts with a certain delay to a stressful situation, such as experiences of war or disaster. People like Julian Goodrum are unable to process what they have seen and are haunted by it. Often, all it takes is a certain smell, a certain color, or a certain situation – and the frightening moments return in their heads.

Trauma is often difficult to grasp for those affected

In the US, one in five combat veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Civilian emergency responders are also at risk, with about 16 percent struggling with PTSD. Most of those affected do not know how to deal with their condition. “For most people, especially in the military, a physical injury is easier to accept than a psychological one,” says Julian Goodrum. Given the choice, the war vetaran says he would rather have lost a leg than his mental health.

Trauma is a heavy load on our minds

Most sufferers consider their fears and nightmares to be something they just have to deal with. However, this is a fallacy. “Untreated PTSD leads to problems over several years in your private life, in your relationship, in your job life. But people often don’t realize that they have a mental illness,” says Marion Krüsmann of the Trauma Outpatient Clinic at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.

However, a recent study from the US showed what can happen if traumatic experiences are not dealt with. According to it, Iraq veterans committed around 100 murders and 115 suicides last year. And yet most veterans still shy away from seeing a psychologist.

Talking about it helps

A catastrophic experience does not necessarily have to trigger a trauma. When the roof of the ice rink in Bad Reichenhall, Germany, collapsed in January 2006, the rescue services were faced with a scene of horror. Dozens of dead and injured, mainly children and young people. But after every operation in Bad Reichenhall, psychologically trained employees called the emergency services together in discussion groups. During these “debriefings,” each volunteer was able to share their experiences. As a result, none of them suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

Every type of dangerous mission can trigger trauma

However, every emergency is a unique situation and can cause trauma. Paramedic Stefan Limmer had been saving lives for 18 years. Then came the call to rescue a boy who had been hit by a car. The sight of dead children or loved ones can be too much even for experienced rescuers. Stefan Limmer hasn’t slept through a single night since that experience. “In the beginning, it made me cry regularly, after that I woke up every night at four o’clock and couldn’t go back to sleep for years”.

Traumatic events cause memories to become alive again in our heads

But how can we diagnose trauma? Researchers have studied the brain waves of patients with PTSD and found that their memory stores the problematic images in the cortex, where our emotional memory resides. This means that every memory brings the images back to life as if the horrific event had only just happened. Many trauma sufferers’ thoughts revolve around events that traumatized them for years.

Traumatic memories can eventually relocate in the brain

Studies have shown that traumatic memories can migrate from the cortex to the brainstem after psychotherapy. This is where the area responsible for logical thinking is located. Images and memories from this region of the brain have been processed and lose their extreme vividness. This is what happened when paramedic Stefan Limmer had the courage to tell his colleagues about his harrowing experience.

It took him a long time to overcome the nightmares in which he saw the dead boy’s face. With the help of a psychiatrist and extensive counseling, he was able to overcome his trauma.
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