News 2008


What Next - Moving from Loss and Trauma to Hope and Healing

February 13, 2008

By Paul Orieny, MA, LMTF and Alice Tindi, MSW, LGSW

A breach of humanity has occurred in Kenya, leaving people in a state of shock and disbelief. To see human beings willfully inflicting pain and death against another has wounded the souls of Kenyans not just at home but everywhere. The violence affects individuals as well as family and community.

As one Kenyan abroad recounts, “We cry ourselves to sleep, we worry about our families at home, we have severe headaches that we do not understand, our appetites are not the same, we feel or want to be left alone, we break into tears every so often, let us just say life ceased to be the same on December 30 2007.”

We feel the same pain; we are from Kenya and work at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT). Here we have found tremendous support. In our work, we offer empathy to our clients, many from African countries. Little did we know we would be in a similar situation.

We offer below suggestions and information from our work experiences with people who experienced torture and war trauma. We hope these will be helpful to our brothers and sisters in Kenya and abroad.

When a traumatic (mfadhaiko or bumbwazi) experience happens to or is witnessed by a person, the body and the brain go into a state of alarm during and shortly after the events. This state naturally calls for one to fight, run away, or be inactive to counter the danger. When our bodies and minds stay in this state for an extended period of time, our well-being is negatively impacted.

For the first time, many Kenyans may be experiencing physical or emotional (psychological) symptoms. Although these feelings can be frightening, they are normal responses to abnormal situations. These reactions may include:

  • Profound disbelief these incidents are happening. Feeling numb and helpless. This may lead to loss of feeling for people, including your children and spouse.
  • When disbelief and shock fade, feelings of loss can occur. These may include profound sadness over loss of loved ones or the suffering of loved ones, loss of security, loss of assumptions about the world or your country (e.g., it could never happen here, we do not live in a war-torn or terror-filled world, etc.).
  • Recurring unwanted thoughts, nightmares (jinamizi), and flashbacks may emerge, sometimes worsened by watching the media or being exposed to reminders of trauma. Irritability, anger and rage (Hasira), especially when the trauma is caused by other human beings. Angry reactions come from fear and hurt and can lead to aggressive acts, mainly as attempts to take control (e.g., family conflict, verbal arguments, etc.).
  • Anxiety (wasi wasi, shauku), nervousness, increased states of alertness to counter danger; such as mistrusting people and suspecting danger everywhere, fear of leaving home, of letting loved ones out of your sight, of other people, etc
  • Moodiness (huzuni), loss of interest or pleasure in activities nearly everyday, weight change, sleep problems, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, helplessness and hopelessness, decreased ability to concentrate and crying more easily..
  • Guilt (Uaili). Feel guilty for being okay, being in a good mood or having fun when others are suffering. Remember, it is okay to have positive feelings and thoughts.
  • Physical problems such as headaches, stomachaches, breathing difficulties, insomnia, high blood pressure, nausea, changes in appetite, etc.
  • Not wanting to be reminded of places or people associated with the trauma.
  • Symptoms continuing over a month regardless of personal effort to lessen them.
  • Forgetfulness and problems doing things you used to do.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse – many people will tend to consume more alcohol or drugs in an effort to reduce the suffering associated with their symptom. This only adds to the suffering and should be seen as attempts to self-medicate. If you seek out drugs or alcohol, practice the self-care suggestions below or seek appropriate help if available.

Below are things you can do to help yourself and others:

  • Recognize your feelings. These events have had a deep impact on you and affected your community in many ways. Accept that your emotions may fluctuate for a period. Grieving takes time and cannot be rushed.
  • Deal with your anger in a non-destructive way. Don’t take it out on others or yourself.
  • Reach out to others. Everyone needs reassurance and kindness during these times.
  • Remember to do things that feel good to you. Try to eat and sleep regularly. Try not to give in to guilt. We all have a right to experience life to the fullest extent possible.

We realize that many Kenyans are reluctant to seek help, especially when it addresses psychological needs and specifically when it is associated with the word ‘mental health,’ because this implies being ‘crazy.’ But if help is not sought out and psychological needs not addressed, emotions are stored up and like a covered cooking pot, it is only a matter of time before the pressure explodes and spews out hot, dangerous steam.

As you try to resume your daily routines, remember, if you are experiencing the symptoms suggested above, find the courage to seek help. Even secondhand exposure to violence, such as through the media or by living with someone who experienced trauma, can be traumatic. You can find help from a teacher, counselor, pastor, priest, doctor, a nurse, family member or a friend.

Paul Orien and Alice Tindi are clinicians at the Center for Victims of Torture and are from Kenya. The Center for Victims of Torture is a nonprofit whose mission is to heal the wounds of torture on individuals, their families and their communities and to stop torture worldwide.