Data from the US Department of Veterans Affairs has shown that 20% of all combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); Prince Harry has been open about the PTSD he suffered after serving in Afghanistan.
Harry has also shared details of the trauma he suffered after the death of his mother, Diana: ‘I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but also my work as well.’
I describe a person who has suffered trauma as someone who’s typically ‘lost for words’. It can be a deeply distressing and overwhelming experience that affects a person’s mental, emotional and physical well-being. Short-term symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety and depression. In the long term, an individual can suffer PTSD and related substance abuse and other mental health disorders.
An individual might find it difficult to understand what they are now going through or to find the words to explain how they feel. They can feel alone and as though their mind is unravelling.
“The effect of trauma is not that we cannot remember the past, but that the past remains within us in ways we cannot escape.”
Dr Gabor Mate
In The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts
Psychiatrist and researcher Dr Bessel van der Kolk said in his book, The Body Keeps The Score: ‘The single most important issue for traumatized people is to find a sense of safety in their own bodies.’
As well as understanding some of the initial responses to trauma, individuals need to learn how to process it and how to live with it – but they need to be able to do that in a non-threatening way.
This is why animation is so beneficial.
Animation provides a safe space for people to explore and process traumatic experiences. It has the unique ability to describe complex emotions and experiences in a way that is both accessible and non-threatening.
Watching an animated character experiencing a traumatic event and wrestling with the consequences helps a person to understand the process of their own trauma. It helps them visualise their own traumatic experience yet remain detached from it. People can watch the animation with a therapist and then revisit it later, in their own time, on their phones or tablets, to process the experience safely and calmly.
These animations enable a person to understand the trauma process and consequently provide a sense of restored agency and control. It’s the lack of control – ‘I keep having flashbacks; am I going mad?’ or ‘how will I ever be able to return to work?’ – that is so upsetting and destabilising, and why early intervention with animation can be so effective.
In my ‘Beyond Trauma’ animation, I talk about how a patient can learn to live with trauma. They can compartmentalise it – put it in a box and revisit it when they’re ready. The viewer consciously sees how this will enable them to regain control and unconsciously ‘sees’ a pathway through their responses to the trauma.
The animation illustrates the sensation of trauma side effects such as repetitive and intrusive thoughts and dreams, and the frustration felt when trying to regain control over something that seems uncontrollable.
Using animation to represent an unnamed trauma, the viewer can identify with the character’s struggles without revisiting their own pain. Distancing people from their trauma in this way enables them to approach it objectively, without fear and with a sense of restored agency.
By identifying with the animated character, the viewer also feels less isolated and alone; they even feel validated. They’re not ‘going mad’, after all. What they are experiencing is perfectly normal.
In essence, animation is an immediate, accessible and powerful therapeutic tool, congruent with traditional approaches. It provides individuals with a safe and controlled environment to explore and process their experiences, while also delivering a sense of agency and connection. It facilitates both understanding and a feeling of being understood.
Benefits of animation
- Animation voiceovers can be quickly translated and revoiced in any language at a rough cost of only £1000.
- From script to screen, an animation can be created in two weeks – ideal for ‘disaster’ work.
- While the initial animation can cost about £10k, subsequent digital copies are completely free (unlike print). Small amendments to ‘end slates’ to, for example, localise helpline numbers cost very little, so one trauma video can be used 10,000 times nationally at pretty much no extra cost.
- Animation works brilliantly across all social media channels so it’s instantly and freely accessible and provides a ‘language’ for the person and their caregivers to understand what’s going on.
- Still images can be taken from the animation and used within other collateral. For example, a dozen still images can be laid out in front of a child, enabling them to choose which image from the animation spoke to them (a good way to introduce tricky subjects, eg sexual abuse).
Six types of trauma
Trauma is defined as a psychological response to a distressing or disturbing event (or series of events) that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. Traditional treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) and exposure therapy.
- Physical: This includes any kind of physical abuse or violence, as well as accidents or injuries that can result in physical pain or disability.
- Emotional: Emotional trauma can result from experiences such as neglect, abandonment, emotional abuse or psychological manipulation.
- Sexual: Sexual trauma can include sexual abuse, assault or harassment, as well as any kind of unwanted sexual experience.
- Neglect: Neglect can involve a lack of emotional or physical care from parents or caregivers, such as neglecting to provide food, shelter or attention.
- Environmental: This includes exposure to toxins or pollution, natural disasters or other environmental factors that can have a negative impact on physical and mental health.
- Intergenerational: This refers to trauma that is passed down through generations, such as that experienced by Holocaust survivors or by Indigenous peoples due to colonisation.