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The Side-Effect of Trauma We Rarely Address: Loneliness

Even if we know it's not true, trauma can make us feel like we're the only one going through it.

by Juli Fraga
January 8, 2020 | Health

“What’s the sad thing you never talk about?" comedian and artist Michael Kruz Kayne asked his Twitter followers on Nov. 19.

Referencing his personal heartache, Kayne tweeted about the death of his baby, Daniel, who passed away 10 years ago.

“I never talk about it with anyone other than my wife. It’s taken me ten years to realize that I want to talk about it all the time,” Kayne posted to Twitter.

Kayne’s tweets were met with thousands of retweets and more than 200,000 likes, a sign that people all over the world could relate to his grief.

More than 5,000 people shared their own stories in 280 characters or less. One of Kayne’s followers, Philip Nolan, tweeted: "Grief is not there to be stoically borne — we should shout and scream when we need to."

Feeling like the only one

Kayne’s tweet thread, as well as the responses, highlight a symptom of grief and trauma that’s often overlooked: loneliness.

Unlike loneliness brought on by social isolation, trauma-induced loneliness can stem from the feeling that no one understands your pain. Survivors may also be hesitant to speak about the loss because they don’t want to burden others.

“Even in a war that killed thousands, I’ve seen survivors, who knew many others had died, feel alone with their loss and grief,” said James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist and author of "The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma."

Loneliness can also be rooted in trauma’s self-protective biology. Traumatic experiences actually alter the brain.

An illustration of two people hugging with their eyes closed. Rewire PBS Living Loneliness
Just being physically and emotionally present can help someone experiencing loneliness related to their trauma.

“When it feels like we’re fighting for our life, it doesn’t serve us to trust others,” he said.

Certain noises, smells, songs and movies can trigger traumatic memories, making them feel new again.

“The amygdala, the center for fear and anger, in the emotional brain, can be overly reactive to stimulation."

Reliving the trauma over and over again can cause people to withdraw because the entire world feels unsafe. As a result, loved ones may feel unsure how to be supportive.

The good news is that even the deepest suffering is temporary, even if it feels never-ending. Through his work, Gordon has found that self-care practices, as well as connecting with loved ones, can help take the lonely sting out of trauma and grief.

[ICYMI: The Psychology Behind Why Mantras Make Us Feel Better]

Music, meditation and movement for healing

Self-care techniques, such as quiet meditation, can be antidotes to the fight-or-flight response aroused by trauma, Gordon said. This physical response causes our hearts to race and our palms to sweat, and pushes the nervous system into overdrive.

Musician and writer Loolwa Khazzoom has benefitted from using her body to help heal her mind. Early in her life, trauma punctured her well-being. From family violence and asthma to chronic pain and eating disorders, Khazzoom fought to overcome a lot.

She turned to music and dance to help her cut through the trauma to connect with herself. Bodily movement can help quiet a lingering fight-or-flight response, Gordon said.

“Music and dance are doorways to another dimension,” Khazzoom said.

[Read: How Yoga Helps People Recover from Trauma]

The importance of reaching out for help

Talking about your pain may feel too vulnerable, especially at first, Gordon said. But the key is to take small steps.

“Writing about emotional pain in a journal can lower levels of stress and can be the preclude to sharing feelings with others,” he said.

He also recommends spending time with animals and using your imagination to overcome feelings of isolation. You can find guided meditations on YouTube that can help.

“Guided imagery and drawing can also mobilize our intuition and help us connect with others.”

Trauma needs a witness. Talking to loved ones, a mental health professional and people who have gone through similar losses can help you feel less alone.

How to help a loved one

If you're trying to help someone who's been through trauma and is feeling isolated, the most important thing is to be present and supportive.

Offering this type of support doesn't require special training, Gordon said. It doesn't require you to do anything, really. A lot of times, it just means being physically and emotionally there, no matter what.

“What is crucial is that you feel relaxed and aware enough to listen to whatever the traumatized person wants to share,” Gordon said.

Too often, people worry about saying the wrong thing, which causes them to say nothing. Perhaps they're worried that mentioning what happened will stir up upsetting emotions.

But simply asking, “How are you?” or letting a loved one know you’re thinking of them can go a long way. For starters, it says you aren’t afraid to acknowledge their grief and trauma.

That being said, they might not want to delve into the details, at least not right away. And that's OK.

“Friends can also offer support by being patient and sharing in life’s ordinary pleasures, like walking, cooking or simply sitting together in silence,” Gordon said.

Juli Fraga
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and a health writer who lives in San Francisco. Her stories have appeared in the New York Times, NPR and The Washington Post.
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