The Realities of Trauma: Hope for Victims of Traumatic Brain Injury

Trauma appears to touch nearly everyone, from veterans in the post 9/11 era, to mothers, children, and people in your neighborhood. In fact, there seems to be no shortage of trauma-related events. Fifty-two percent of of combat veterans who served in the post 9/11 wars said they had suffered emotionally traumatic or distressing experiences while in the military, according to a Pew Research Center study.

The November 2015 Social Work Conference, sponsored by BYU’s School of Social Work, the Marjorie Pay Hinckley Endowed Chair, and the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, brought speakers and specialists to discuss the newest data for and share ways to care for those dealing with trauma.

As defined by the School of Social Work, trauma is most accurately characterized as the emotional response to a disturbing or distressing event that an individual experience. It’s a difficult subject, but one about which faculty and mental health professionals were able to provide a variety of treatment options and inspiring success stories. There is hope for those who’ve suffered trauma.

Traumatic Brain Injuries

It is estimated that there are about 1.7 million for people each year who suffer from a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Fifty-two thousand people will die as a result of their injury. About 1.4 million people with TBI’s are admitted to and released from ER’s each year. Veterans from past wars are at increased risk for dementia from traumatic brain injuries are being added to long lists at Veteran Administration hospitals. The biggest causes of TBI are:

  1. Transportation/Motor Vehicle accidents (ex: alcohol/boating)
  2. Falls (elderly 65+ and young children)
  3. Assaults/guns (leading to open head trauma)
  4. Sports/ recreations (boxing/soccer)

Soccer-playing female athletes sustain the most head injuries because of contact with other players (usually on the ground). Field actions may lead to whiplash or an elbow to the head. Some research has found that neck strength is an indicator for concussions. For men, after football, the second biggest cause of TBI is ice hockey, followed by wrestling and rugby. For children who are younger than age 14, they most likely suffer TBI after falling or playing sports. For those older than that, the leading cause is motor vehicle accidents.

Michael Larson, associate professor of psychology at BYU, reported that there is a huge need for skilled people, such as neuropsychologists, to examine traumatic brain injuries (TBI) more closely . TBI is the leading cause of death and disability for adolescents in America and results in emotional and cognitive difficulties, particularly because the brain’s frontal lobe is not fully developed until age 24. Brain injury before then can result in poorer inhibition and less mature decision-making. It can also have other effects:

Common Behavioral Changes:

  • Irritability
  • Impulsiveness
  • Poor ability to manage social relationships
  • Low motor coordination

As such, it is important to educate caregivers, such as family members, to recognize those changes and know how help a victim who is experiencing them. A common treatment for TBI victims is psychotherapy. Michael Twohig, an associate professor at Utah State University, focuses on Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), or treatments for social behavior (a form of psychotherapy). He suggested that therapists instruct clients in the practice of diffusing thoughts, during which an individual allows thoughts to play out as just thoughts and envisions them as words in his or her head. He said that if you change the context in which you experience those thoughts, they can be easier to handle.

He shared the story of a recent exchange he had with his  10-year old son while they were driving  and witnessed an injured man on the ground. They saw the man lying down in a bloody mess and his son asked him questions about the situation and said, “Dad, I can’t get that image out of my head.” Twohig instructed his son to “find a place for those events in his head:”

“These are thoughts in your head. It’s chatter that’s up there. Your mind will throw out things that you like and things you don’t like but don’t forget it’s just your mind putting things in your head. It’s okay to have inappropriate pictures in your head like from a horror movie… You don’t need to make it go away,  it’s stuff about the event, you just kind of have to wait around with it.”

Although Towhig admits this isn’t necessarily the solution, he says its a way to handle the trauma. To educate yourself more on this topic and other clinical practice methods, visit resources from the Association for Contextual Behavior Science.

Click here to find conference video.

Feature image of brain courtesy of Flickr.



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