Sense of belonging is key to healing from trauma

Friday, July 28, 2023
Beyond the Bulletin logo and Dillon Browne

In the weeks after the hate-motivated attack at Hagey Hall in June, our community was talking about trauma. In this episode of Waterloo’s Beyond the Bulletin podcast, Dr. Dillon Browne of the Department of Psychology helps us understand trauma, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to watch for, and ways to heal from a traumatic event (hint: don’t try to do it alone).

Dr. Browne is the Canada Research Chair in Child and Family Clinical Psychology, a principal investigator at the Whole Family Lab, and a practicing psychologist.

There are a couple of key features of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Browne tells us. “One involves avoidance of situations or settings that are reminders of the traumatic events; another is re-experiencing the events after they have stopped, and that might take the form of nightmares or flashbacks; and lastly there can be a sense of hypervigilance, being on edge, monitoring one’s surroundings.”

Symptoms of PTSD can sneak up on us, especially, he notes, for people who have taken on caregiver roles after an incident: “Days, weeks or months later, they find themselves getting a little bit irritable. Or moody, or sad, or depressed, or find they don’t enjoy things that they used to enjoy.”

On the other hand, many people experience what’s called an acute stress reaction to a traumatic event, “a psychological injury that’s more time limited.” And still others have a totally different response. “If someone is feeling fine, or even a renewed sense of meaning in life, that’s completely okay too,” says Browne. “A sizeable, if not the largest, group of people do not develop clinical symptoms. It doesn’t mean that they’re callous, or unemotional.”

How to recover, and help others recover, from PTSD? Browne says building community is key. “It’s important to remember that the opposite of a traumatic response isn’t simply ‘mental health.’ It’s belonging,” he says.

“Mental health problems are isolating. They get us into a corner or away from community. To move towards healing, we can’t only think about the absence of threat. We need to be thinking about the presence of belonging and togetherness.”

To learn more, listen to Pamela Smyth’s Beyond the Bulletin interview with Dr. Browne on YouTube.