Emotional trauma of kidnapping: How can we help?

The spate of kidnappings for ransom, across the country is becoming a source of concern. The outcome can be unpredictable, ranging from loss of lives to the safe return of the kidnapped victim (after payment of huge sums).It is imperative that we gain some understanding of the psychological trauma involved for the victims and their friends/families. This is an important starting point for us all, so we are better equipped to offer assistance and support.


What is emotional trauma?

Trauma is derived from the Greek word for ‘wound’. Emotional trauma occurs when we are exposed to extraordinarily stressful events that shatter our sense of security, making you feel helpless in a dangerous or life-threatening situation. Thus, such situations result in an emotional wound, as a result of the traumatic experiences, involving a threat to our life or safety. It is often accompanied by difficulty with coping or functioning normally, following such a traumatic experience. Everyone’s reaction is different, but the majority of those who experience such trauma will recover well – with the support of family and friends, and will not experience any long-term problems.

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What is the emotional impact of kidnapping?

The diverse spectrum of emotional reactions in the aftermath of kidnappings usually vary from person to person. But they can be categorized broadly into two categories:

A). Emotional reactions: These include feelings of confusion and disbelief, with questions such as ‘why did this happen to me?’. Shock, denial, anger, anxiety, feelings of guilt – ‘maybe if I had not travelled that day or if I had gone the day before, this may not have happened?’ Others may experience shame, feelings of sadness, hopelessness, social withdrawal from society, feeling betrayed and having difficulty trusting people again. If the kidnapping happened on a road trip, a strong fear of travelling by road may ensue – causing panic and anxiety attacks.

B). Physical symptoms: May include difficulty falling asleep, or having recurrent nightmares, fatigue and tiredness, muscle tension, being on edge and jumping easily at loud or sudden noises, racing heart beats and feeling numb.

All of these symptoms frequently last for some days and then subside, but some may persist for several months and then gradually fade away over time. Cues and reminders of such traumatic experiences may trigger distressing memories which come flooding back. But again, the intensity dwindles over time.

So, in the light of the foregoing, how exactly should families, the society and the government deal with the emotional reactions to the nightmare of kidnapping?

  • Reduce publicity and enhance privacy: When someone who has been kidnapped, eventually returns home safely, our natural communal instinct is for all well-wishers, family members and friends to throng the place and rejoice with the family. But this is ill-advised.

Such individuals need some time alone, with close loved ones to work through the normal grief reaction and gradually come to terms with what they had just gone through. They need to gradually re-orient themselves to normal life and become grounded again. They can hardly do so if the house is completely taken over by visitors and well-wishers.

  • Ensure comprehensive medical check-up: Being held in captivity comes with health challenges. From under-nourishment to the possibility of infections – a comprehensive physical check-up is indicated.
  • Psychological therapies: The range of traumatic experiences that they had gone through is likely to leave emotional scars that may be deep-seated. The least of these emotional scars is a reluctance to ever trust another human being again. They may also be going through emotional turmoil; heightened anxiety and panic attacks, and may become depressed. They may also have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) such as recurrent nightmares, getting easily startled and frightened, avoiding any reminders of where and what they have gone through, memory flashbacks e.t.c.

Family members too – may also be wracked by guilt and a sense of failure that they were helpless and could not protect their loved ones from such negative experiences. Children, siblings, other family members and friends, colleagues, neighbours – all of these categories may also have concerns and worries, and be unsure of how to react or behave. Thus, the entire family and loved ones may require psychological help to navigate all of their uncertainties and worries.

  • Social rehabilitation: A change of environment with loved ones may be helpful to allow them quietly reflect and reconnect; while benefitting from the support and unconditional love of their close ones.
  • The Government: Security of lives and property of all citizens is the most fundamental responsibility of government, which must not be shirked. Citizens cannot afford to live in daily fear and anxiety. All Nigerians must impress on the President, the Security Chiefs, Governors etc, that this situation must not be allowed to become our new normal.