Mental Health Monday–Overcoming Trauma

Roguemutt (author and blog host of: Every Other Writer Has A Blog…Why Can’t I?) asks:

My character wants to know how to get over her parents being murdered. She was heartbroken and threw herself into schoolwork to get her PhD by 19.

Wow, what a question!

Sounds like this character was a child when her parents were killed. Severe trauma in childhood can set someone up for a whole myriad of issues. Not only would the incident itself and the grieving thereafter take a toll, but this character also has to live the rest of her life not knowing how things would have been had her parents survived.

Whenever someone faces a tragedy, certain factors are evaluated. Namely, protective factors and risk factors.

If this character was taken into a loving home and raised with good, consistent boundaries, then she could do relatively well. Sounds like this character is pretty strong and has what are called mature defense mechanisms because she turned the death of her parents into a positive thing–obtaining a PhD at a young age.

If this same character was thrown around various orphanages and foster homes, where little love (and maybe even some abuse) happened, her outcome may not be as positive. Chronic mental illness, drug use, inappropriate attachments to others (AKA really wonky behaviors in relationships), and failure to obtain goals could occur.

Now, it sounds like this character is now and adult and is stuggling with coming to terms with her parents’ deaths.

How does one go about “getting over it?”

Some people develop what’s called a “manic defense” where they must be constantly busy or occupy their time (like every second of their time) with some activity so they don’t have an opportunity to let their thoughts ponder the horrible thing that happened to them.

Some people will “self-medicate” with drug or alcohol use. It’s another way of numbing themselves from the sadness.

Some people will become predisposed to depression or other types of mental illness.

Treatment is individually determined, but  there are several options available.

I’m sure a lot of you have heard about the Stages of Grief. Developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, these stages outline the various emotions people go through when they experience loss. Interestingly, these stages are NOT linear. People can bounce back and forth between the stages, skip others, or get completely stuck in one and never move past it.

Simply put, the stages are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

People can get help navigating these stages. Having a strong support network helps. Having good coping skills also helps. Attending a bereavement group, getting psychotherapy, or even using medications (if there is significant distress or dysfunction) are recommended.

I hope that helps!

Be sure to stop by Lydia’s Medical Monday post and Sarah’s post on the recent WSJ articles about YA.

17 comments on “Mental Health Monday–Overcoming Trauma

  1. Linda Gray says:

    I didn’t know those stages of grief were not linear, or that you could bounce around in them. That is useful info, thanks! The other part of your answer that is sooo interesting is the statement that a ‘strong’ person can deal more effectively with trauma’s trail. We all seem to want our protags to be strong people. Do you think it’s nurture, nature or both that determines strength of character? (Sorry, that’s a big question, I know, maybe someday you’ll blog on it!! hint hint :-))

  2. Lydia K says:

    Excellent post, Laura! I think so many characters in the book we read deal with this cycle of grief.

  3. Lynn Rush says:

    Great post. Love this. 🙂

  4. Thank you for sharing this information, Laura. I’m sure that trauma finds its way into many a novel via the main character. It helps to write about overcoming trauma if one has experienced a major loss or extreme life-changing disappointment. Blessings to you…

  5. Carradee says:

    In my teens, twice someone I knew died, and I was told by someone who didn’t realize I’d known the person. Three years apart. Three years after that second one, I was anxious, wondering if it was going to happen again. It didn’t.

    The person’s basic personality and religion also factors in to how they handle grief. One friend died right before Christmas, and someone mentioned it was the best Christmas she’d ever had. (Because, as a Christian, we believe she’s in Heaven.)

    A good friend of mine is orphaned. Some personalities, even when they have their grief times, are very good at hiding it. I know more than one person who’s frequently depressed, but it takes a good friend to notice.

  6. Kendall Grey says:

    I thoroughly enjoy these posts, even if they don’t apply to my characters (or real people I know). I always walk away having learned something new. Thank you!

  7. roguemutt says:

    I think she definitely has a manic defense going on! I never realized that those stages were nonlinear and that you could go back and forth or skip them. Very interesting.

  8. Thanks for the post. I have a character in my second novel who blames himself for his parents death and this information supports what I wrote.

    Thankfully, I researched well.

  9. Donna Hole says:

    Great question; and I learned something in the answer. I’ve read up on the stages of grief, but I’d hadn’t heard of the “manic defense”. Something to keep in mind while writing a character I don’t want want to have A/D issues.

    Would this defense possibly apply to someone who suffered physical/sexual abuse; or does it manifest mostly for single event trauma?


  10. Nas says:

    Interesting post, thanks for sharing. The emotional tension in the story of a character going through these symptoms would be tearful.

  11. Trisha says:

    I gots a question too: do you think that it’s possible for people who have been through very traumatic childhoods to turn out as okay people – i.e. they’ve gone through a lot of crap, but they turn their lives around and despite their innate issues with self-worth etc., they can still grow up to be physically healthy non-abusers themselves?

    I ask because I have a character that I’ve made this way and I’m curious to know if that’s realistic or not. 🙂

    • lbdiamond says:

      Yes, it is quite possible to grow up well-adjusted despite having childhood trauma. Again, this would be more likely if several protective factors are in place, like a loving home, appropriate treatment, and the development of good coping skills.

      • Trisha says:

        Well, in my character’s case, it wasn’t till he was 17 that he got a good home. But that was a VERY good home. It still took him a long time to start warming up to his new family though.

  12. lbdiamond says:

    Hey, gang, you’ve raised some great follow up questions. I will work on addressing them in subsequent posts. Thanks!

  13. Misha says:

    Hmm… interesting post. As it happens, my one character’s parents were murdered and… well… she’s… not a happy camper.

  14. Great post! Can be useful for a broad range of topics. Thanks.

  15. Vicki Tremper says:

    That was a tough one. Good job, Laura!

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