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By: Mary Hoofnagle and William Schroeder
After seeing Catching Fire over the holidays, I thought a lot about how similar this is to the struggle that our clients have after going through trauma. You didn’t see a glamorized version of it like the movies where the hero struggles and then bounces right back. You saw the gritty and messy stuff of life during and after trauma and how people have difficulty dealing with it. Being exposed day in and day out to life and death situations really turns your life upside down. In Catching Fire you feel their fear and the emotional the roller coaster they are on.
Early in Catching Fire, Katniss, in physical and emotional agony, stumbles through the jungle in a desperate attempt to escape hundreds of jabberjays. These birds rush at her like a scene out of The Birds as they call to her with the tortured cries of her sister, Primrose, and her best friend, Gale. While these birds are real in the film, the echoes of fear and agony can be a symptom ringing in the mind of survivors of trauma. This scene is powerful because Katniss sits behind an invisible force field until the hour passes with Peeta just on the other side, helpless to comfort her until the moment passes. This is what it can be like for loved ones of survivors of trauma. While they are desperate to help and comfort, they aren’t able to truly understand the emotional agony inside of the survivor. For the survivor it can feel lonely and frightening on the other side of an invisible wall that no one can penetrate. Catching Fire highlights several symptoms of trauma beyond this potent scene.
Survivors of trauma often experience hallucinations and flashbacks.
One common symptoms of trauma is seeing or hearing things that aren’t really there. At the beginning of the film, Katniss lets an arrow fly during one of her regular hunting excursions with Gale, but sees it hit a man who isn’t really there. This causes Katniss to enter a heightened state and experience other common symptoms like sweating, racing heart, and labored breathing. If Katniss continued to go on hunting excursions, her memories of the first Hunger Games where she was forced to hunt her competitors in the woods would continue to haunt her. Eventually she would avoid this hunting altogether because it triggers memories and re-traumatizes her. Survivors of trauma often avoid things that preciously brought them pleasure. Something as simple as a noisy restaurant could put a war veteran’s senses on high alert because the environment somewhat mimics the chaotic movement and noises of a war zone.
Additionally, these hallucinations can come in the form of nightmares and induce insomnia. Katniss awakes from a nightmare and Peeta rushes in reassuring her that she is safe, and he gets nightmares too. They begin to sleep together every night because it is the only way either of them feel safe and avoid these nightmares. This is the beginning of the strong bond that Peeta and Katniss from as a result of their experience in the first Hunger Games.
Survivors of trauma experience strong, unexplainable bonds with other survivors—especially if they endured the same traumatic event.
While Katniss doesn’t understand a lot of what she is going through, she does recognize that Peeta begins to feel like home for her. She admits to Peeta that she needs him. In the book she recognizes it’s not exactly because she is in love with him, but rather this need comes from something she can’t describe. At the beginning we can see an emotional distance between her and Gale and between her and her mother and sister that did not exist in the first installment of the movie. She is making an effort, but she really doesn’t know how to relate to people who don’t understand what she has been through.
In fact, until Katniss and Peeta returned from the games, Haymitch lived as a hermit, isolated and withdrawn from everyone in his hometown because there was no one who could relate to his experience.
The alliances that form among all of the previous winners is an illustration of the kind of bond that forms between survivors of the same trauma. Mags volunteers for Annie, who has never recovered from her first experience in the arena.
Strangers to Katniss are willing to sacrifice their lives for her because they believe she can help ensure that no one has to endure the horror of the Hunger Games again.
If you are a survivor of trauma, support groups can be valuable because they offer a place to connect with others who share a similar experience. If your loved one is a survivor of trauma don’t feel threatened by the bonds formed with other survivors; encourage the kind of healing those bonds facilitate. If you’re looking for support groups, Mental Health America can be a great resource.
Sometimes survivors of trauma turn to self-medication to ease their struggle.
Just as Haymitch and The Morphlings turned to self-medication to ease their agony, survivors of trauma often try to quiet hallucinations and numb their pain and loneliness with drug and alcohol abuse. Sometimes, if the symptoms of trauma are severe enough, medications like anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depressants, or sleeping aids may be necessary. A professional is the best person to judge when it is necessary, so don’t hesitate to seek out help from a doctor, counselor, or psychiatrist.
Survivors of trauma can become angry and exhibit acting out behaviors.
Johanna Mason is one of the previous victors of the Hunger Games and she exhibits quite a bit of anger about what she endured and is facing again. She demonstrates this anger by acting out in outrageous ways, for example, cursing and shouting on national TV, stripping in an elevator, and being generally antagonistic in her interactions with everyone. Her extreme displays of anger are not uncommon for survivors of trauma.
Sometimes acting out is subtler, too. People can lose touch with the qualities and values that used to define them prior to the trauma. Their renewed motivation is simply to avoid trauma. For example, in the first installment of the story, Katniss refused to run away when Gale presented the idea to her. However, when she is faced with returning to the Hunger Games again, her first response is to run away with Gale to avoid it, despite the principles that kept her from running away before. Any uncharacteristic behavior can indicate someone is struggling with trauma.
If left untreated, the effects of trauma can become increasingly severe.
Most of these symptoms can be alleviated with proper intervention and treatment. However, if left untreated the trauma can become paralyzing to the survivor causing them to go mad like Annie, mute like Mags, or at times speak in gibberish and revert to a child-like state like Wiress.
Help is available.
Recovering from trauma can be scary and lonely. The mind has a difficult time regulating itself after experiencing events that cause a rush of adrenaline and fight or flight responses. If you or someone you love is experiencing any of these symptoms, they are very real. None of these experiences mean there is something fundamentally wrong with you or your loved one. They are natural responses as the brain begins readjusting hormone levels. Seeking professional assistance is an important part of the process to ensure things stabilize. Start by talking to a doctor or a counselor. Both can direct you to different treatments that have proven effective, including Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing (EMDR), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure Therapy, and Somatic Experiencing. While the Hunger Games is a severe experience, it’s important to remember that many events, both large and small, can create trauma for an individual. It can be something unexpected or something that occurred over a long period of time, something you felt unprepared for or powerless to control. Either way, help is available. Don’t hesitate to seek it out.