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Why does trauma imagery help with rape recall problems (PTSD) and not as much with student suicide

23 May
A professor asks why the trauma imagery has helped her with the memories of a long-ago rape but doesn’t seem to help her with her feelings about the suicide of one of her students..
I started working with your PTSD tape when I began having some rape recall problems. The rape happened some 20 years earlier, and he was my youth group leader at my Catholic Church. Needless to say, all that has been happening in the Catholic Church in the last few years has been a trigger but also an opportunity for more healing. Your Healing Trauma CD has been great, and I have also been using the Anger & Forgiveness CD.

Three years ago, one of my students (I work at a local college) hanged herself, but the CDs aren''t as effective for me when I am dealing with my suicide survivor issues. Is the nature of the two traumas that different that the CD is effective for one and not the other? Can I really separate the two, or is it a cumulative problem? Have you ever considered making a CD specifically for suicide survivors? Any suggestions for me? I am working with a wonderful therapist, and he is helpful.

Again, thank you for any suggestions, and thank you for your wonderful work!

Dear Kristin,
I’m glad the imagery has helped with the emotional residue of the rape. And to answer your question, yes, I think the traumatic stress from being attacked, violated, helpless and in terror for your life is different from the welter of emotions you were left with in the aftermath of a student’s suicide.

A rape will often result in symptoms of posttraumatic stress, because the threat of annihilation activates a biochemical cascade and neurophysiological survival reaction that generates the nasty, persistent symptoms of agitation, nightmares, anxiety, flashbacks, mental confusion, memory problems, insomnia, emotional numbness and anger. If you’re lucky, you’ll suffer these for just a few weeks or months, in which case, it gets called an acute stress reaction and it disappears on its own. But if those symptoms hang around more than a half dozen months, or resurface months or even years or decades later, it’s definitely in the ballpark of PTSD and our trauma imagery will be helpful, as will many of the short-term "alphabet therapies", such as EMDR, TFT, EFT, SE, TIR and others described in my book, Invisible Heroes. (Actually, the trauma imagery and these therapies are wonderful for acute stress too. But that will, by definition, get better on its own, with or without the imagery, unless it morphs into fullblown PTSD. It’s possible that by using these techniques during an acute stress episode that you can avoid acquiring PTSD, as this week’s Hot Research shows us.

Probably the student’s suicide left you with a lot of grief, sorrow, helplessness, guilt (even if it isn’t warranted logically) and unsureness about what you know and don’t know about the kids you work with and the extent you can control things. There are some elements on that list that are similar to PTSD - the helplessness and the unsureness about what you can take for granted - but the rest is different. I would recommend our Ease Grief imagery and Emmett Miller’s Accepting Change and Moving On.

The good news is, if imagery was helpful to you for your posttraumatic stress symptoms, it will certainly stand you in good stead for helping you with all the feelings you have about this suicide. I wish you the very best recovery. It’s a heartbreak to experience such a painful loss.

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award