We’re not going to be ready to pull our sh*t together and move on from a traumatic stressor until we’re ready.
We’re DEFINITELY not going to be ready to do so in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic stressor.
Still: we might feel pressure to pull ourselves together and look to the future— right after a big, painful thing has happened to us.
Sometimes that pressure comes from the world or the people around us— but sometimes it comes from within us.
We don’t want to look “weak.”
We don’t want people to see us reeling or crying.
We don’t want the world to assume that we are incapable of handling whatever just got thrown at us.
When a traumatic stressor happens, we’re most often thrust into a cycle of emotional and behavioral responses that look a lot like the classic model of grieving— which starts with a period of shock and/or denial.
Humans are just not wired to endure a traumatic stressor and immediately look to the future.
Rather, we’re wired to cycle through certain emotional states, such as denial, anger, and depression, and to engage in certain compensatory behaviors, like bargaining, as we come to terms with what has just happened to us.
It’s NOT a process that happens instantaneously.
The fact that we need to take a minute to absorb the shock of a traumatic stressor doesn’t mean that we’re incapable of handling it or moving on— eventually.
It means that reality has shifted, and we need time to adjust our model of the world.
We need time to catch up to how the world is now, compared to how it was before the thing happened.
The culture around us tells us that it is the epitome of resilience and mental toughness to accept a tragic event in stride and look to the future.
This often gets oversimplified in “look on the bright side” takes.
Whether or not a stressful event contains the seed of an opportunity or the potential for personal growth isn’t really the point— the point is that, right after the event happens, our brains are simply incapable of thinking in those terms.
The temptation to immediately pivot to “what’s next” or “how am I going to fix this” in the wake of a traumatic stressor is often a shock response or a bargaining behavior.
Part of us might think that if we can immediately come up with a plan for how to make lemonade out of the lemons that were just launched at us, it just might seem as if the thing didn’t happen.
But it did.
And we need time to absorb what that means.
In the hours, days, and weeks after a traumatic stressor, your job isn’t to come up with a comprehensive plan for how to move forward.
It’s to be gentle and compassionate with yourself.
It’s to be there for yourself.
It’s to keep yourself safe— and away from the sometimes self-harmful behaviors that can get tempting during times of emotional dysregulation.
We don’t know what comes next— and in the immediate wake of a traumatic stressor, we don’t need to know.
We need reassurance.
We need to know that we haven’t lost everything. That we still have the right to basic dignity and safety.
We need to be there for ourselves in ways that we needed a caring adult to be there when we fell down and hurt ourselves as kids.
We need to know there IS no rushing— and there is no rush.
We WILL pick up the pieces.
AFTER we’ve had a chance to absorb what’s happened and feel what we need to feel about it.
Follow Dr. Glenn Patrick Doyle on Twitter and Instagram at @DrDoyleSays.