Trauma and Rumination

Trauma and Rumination

The shooting at the King Soopers in South Boulder last week was, at the least, a distressing and deeply disturbing experience. By definition, it was traumatic, in one way or another, to practically every member of our community. Someone I know who regularly shops at the King Soopers commented “I can’t get it out of my head.”  She described vigilantly reading every news story, compulsively checking for new tweets that might provide updated information, and repeatedly talking about the details of the shooting with her partner. She even described lying awake at night, while she imagined walking down each of the aisles of the store and trying to picture the horror that unfolded in them.  

She wondered why was she doing this? Shouldn’t she be trying to avoid thinking about this awful and upsetting event?  Yet, she described these thoughts as intrusive and out of her control, no matter what she did to distract herself from them. The clinical term for this is rumination. 

Actually, what my friend is describing is perfectly normal. In fact, it is the first step to healing from a traumatic event. According to trauma experts, revisiting the trauma and rumination are part of the cognitive process through which new insights emerge that lead to meaning making and posttraumatic growth. Meaning making is comprehending an event and acknowledging its significance.  Post-traumatic growth is new ways of viewing ourselves and the world after a traumatic event (Werdel & Wicks, 2012).  

In other words, we let our minds think about a traumatic event in an effort to understand what happened, and this helps us regain a sense of control over the event. Maybe we imagine what we would do differently during a traumatic event or why it could not happen again. We tell ourselves stories to explain how such a thing happened, and we try to fill in any gaps with actual or imagined information, so the story makes sense to us. We also consider why the traumatic event matters to us. We might think “I feel sad because I know what it’s like to lose a loved one.”  Then we begin to develop new assumptions, such as “I need to take these precautions to stay safe” or “I am braver than I realized.”  Talking to a therapist can help you work through this process.