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Culture

Knowing you're not alone in your sorrow is vital for coping, says trauma expert

As it can be hard to make sense of shocking experiences like the Berlin Christmas market attack, DW got advice from clinical hypno-therapist Christian Lüdke about how to handle traumatic situations.

Christian Lüdke (Fotostudio Bildnis/C. Lüdke)

Trauma expert and therapist Christian Lüdke

DW: How exactly would you define trauma? Is there such a thing as not only individual trauma but collective or societal trauma?

In original Greek, trauma is the word for wound. It was first used by surgeons when they were speaking about surgical lacerations. The word has since been used metaphorically when talking about an emotional wound. A trauma thus occurs whenever we experience an extremely stressful situation. It is similar to a laceration in that it can only heal when it is appropriately taken care of, when it is cleaned and bandaged and when the time is taken to let it heal.

The same goes for psychological injuries. That means that when people experience things such as the situation that occurred yesterday in Berlin, people will have very strange symptoms. They are in shock and are burdened by these images in their memories. But even these wounds can be healed if they are properly cleaned.

What can help do that?

Flowers at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin (DW/B. Knight)

A sign of solidarity and mourning shows we are not alone in our sorrows

In this instance, information is required. We need a lot of solid information. We need to have our symptoms explained to us as something that is normal, which means that the symptoms people are now displaying, no matter how unusual they are, are a normal reaction to a crazy situation. I am not crazy if I cannot sleep or feel insecure or have an uneasy feeling. Rather, this situation is extraordinary; this situation is crazy. 

You mention solid information, which of course is an appeal to the media not to fall into hysteria but to continue to report seriously.

Absolutely! It is very important to continue reporting, yet it needs to remain serious. It should only be serious and confirmed information. Otherwise it can be very dangerous, especially in the "new media," which can also be very helpful. When I see, for example, that the police have posted something, then I can be sure of that information. More dramatic and dangerous would be when such confirmed information becomes mixed up with fears and conspiracy theories. Then a dynamic suddenly occurs which is absolutely unhelpful and does more damage than good.

When you speak about new media, it also brings to mind the momentum of solidarity that followed previous attacks. How important is that for people?

I believe that taking part in something like this is unbelievably important, as people can create a community of fate in an instant. And as the old saying goes, "Shared sorrow is half the sorrow." It's very important to see: "I am not alone in this. It is not unusual that I am reacting the way I am and I don't need to be ashamed because I know that many other people are reacting the same way and are feeling the same I am." It is important that people exchange information and build a community because in doing so, we are creating opposition to the strength of the violence and terror by looking after one another.

After the recent attacks, people have often talked about how we should behave: Should we avoid public spaces, or should we not change anything so as not to let our lifestyle be dictated? Is there any general advice you can give or is it up to each person individually?

Berlin's mayor Michael Müller signs the book of condolences in the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church (Reuters/P. Kopczynski)

Berlin's mayor Michael Müller signs the book of condolences in the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church

In general I would send a message to the people and the public to not let ourselves be intimidated and not let ourselves be put off from doing the things we do every day. Then the terrorists or the people behind the attacks would have achieved their goal, which is to spread fear and terror and intimidate people.

We also don't need to be overly afraid. Of course, there are individual cases where people might be particularly fearful. They can decide for themselves not to leave the house. But in an open society, which we live in, safety is not 100-percent guaranteed. We should return to the normalcy of our everyday lives as soon as possible. Everyday routines give us security; we are familiar with them.

We shouldn't let ourselves be held back from going to the Christmas market, from doing our Christmas shopping, or from attending large events. Of course, people have been sensitized and have become more attentive. But we should also make sure that the authorities, the police and justice system, work very hard at fighting the root causes. That's the only possibility we have for finding a long-term solution.

The refugee issue is being discussed in light of the attack. How can we prevent ourselves from looking for scapegoats and succumbing to hysteria?

We can only protect ourselves by informing ourselves very carefully. Even though it's a very typical response, we shouldn't build prejudices. "The refugees" cannot be generalized. Many of them are wonderful people. Among the refugees, just like in the rest of society, there are also individuals with a high level of criminal energy, some of whom belong to radical groups. You have to differentiate between the person and the ideology. We can't generalize and say that "all refugees are this or that…" I would strictly warn against that.

 

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