Trauma is a psychological and emotional response to an event/experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. These experiences may or may not involve an actual threat to life or safety. Everyone processes a traumatic event differently because we all view them through the lens of prior experiences in our lives. This subjectivity determines the level of trauma and how we respond, not the actual event.
Trauma can shatter your sense of security. Predisposing you to feel helpless in a dangerous and unpredictable world. It can leave you feeling upsetting emotions, having unsettling memories, and create intense anxiety that won’t go away. It can also leave you feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people. Sometimes people will need the support of a trauma therapist and time to recover from the event and regain emotional and mental stability.
Emotional, physical, and psychological trauma can be caused by:
- One-time events, such as an accident, injury, or a violent attack, especially if it was unexpected or happened in childhood.
- Chronic, persistent stress, such as battling a life-threatening illness, household dischord, repetitive traumatic events, or childhood neglect.
- Other factors- Surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life), the sudden death of someone close, significant relationship breakups, or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience.
Everyone experiences and responds to trauma differently. Often there are no visible signs but there can be a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel, or respond. Your responses are normal reactions to abnormal events.
Shock and denial shortly after a trauma is a common reaction. These defense mechanisms serve to protect you from the emotional impact of the event. Numbness and feeling dissociated may also delay the intensity of the response for awhile. Once you have moved past the initial shock, common trauma responses include:
- Intense fear that the traumatic event will recur. Particularly around anniversaries of the event or when triggered by the traumatic environment.
- Anger, irritability, mood volatility
- Guilt, shame
- Self blame, regrets, “what ifs…”, “if only…”
- Anxiety, nervousness, agitation
- Depression, sadness, hopelessness
- Flashbacks or repeated (disturbing) memories of the event
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Sleep disruption, nightmares, or insomnia
- Changes in appetite and other self care routines
- Intensified startle response
- Withdrawal from day-to-day activities
- Social isolation
- Physical symptoms of stress, muscle tension, aches and pains
- Worsening of an existing medical condition
- Difficulty trusting others or self
There are different forms of trauma. Complex trauma is defined by repetitive exposures and often results in direct harm to the individual. The effects of complex trauma are cumulative and often transpire within a particular time frame, within a specific relationship, and in a specific setting.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
A condition known as PTSD can occur when an individual experiences a life threatening event or witnesses intense harm/death to another person. It can last for months or years following the trauma. PTSD affects a person’s stress hormones and changes the body’s response to stress. This is a common disorder seen in war veterans and first responders. PTSD treatment with a trauma therapist can be very beneficial in supporting these individuals to process, understand, and move forward in their lives.
The Role of Childhood Trauma
Childhood trauma can result from anything that disrupts a child’s sense of safety and security. If not resolved, childhood trauma can result in a severe and long-lasting effects. A generalized sense of fear and helplessness can be overwhelming and carried into adulthood. Factors that can increase a person’s vulnerability to childhood trauma being triggered include chronic and/or intense stress and having recently suffered losses. Here are some common causes of childhood trauma:
- Sexual, physical, emotional abuse
- Neglect or abandonment
- An unstable or unsafe environment
- Serious illness, intense medical procedures/interventions
- Domestic violence
Healing from Trauma
Trauma symptoms typically last from a few days to a few months. Gradually fading as you process and accept the unsettling event. When you start feeling better, you may occasionally experience painful emotions and memories. Anniversaries, reminders, associated places/people may trigger the trauma response. If you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed, here are things you can do to facilitate the healing process.
Move your body- Trauma disrupts your body’s natural state of balance, freezing you in a state of hyperarousal and fear. Exercise helps repair your nervous system by burning off adrenaline and releasing endorphins.
- Try to exercise for 20-30 minutes a day, as much as possible. Rhythmic exercise that uses your arms and legs is best.
- Add a mindfulness element. Instead of focusing on your thoughts or distracting yourself while you exercise, really focus on your body and how it feels as you move.
Connection- An automatic response when we are overwhelmed is to withdraw and isolate. Connection helps you heal, so push yourself to reach out.
- Connecting with others doesn’t have to involve talking about the trauma. Comfort comes from feeling engaged and accepted by others. If you do not have a lot of supports, join something that connects you to others that are like minded.
- While you don’t have to talk about the trauma itself, it is important that you have someone non judgemental to share your feelings with. Talk to a trusted family member, friend, or trauma therapist.
- Do “normal” activities with other people.
- Trauma support groups can help reduce your sense of isolation, and help inspire your own recovery.
- Volunteering can be a great way to challenge the sense of helplessness and fear. Remind yourself of your strengths and reclaim your power by helping others.
Self-regulation- No matter how agitated, anxious, or out of control you feel, it’s important to know that you have the power to heal your arousal system and soothe yourself. Not only will it help relieve the anxiety associated with trauma, but it will also engender a greater sense of control.
- Mindful breathing- If you are feeling disoriented, confused, or upset, practicing 60 seconds of mindful breathing is a quick way to calm yourself.
- Using your senses-.
- Ground yourself. Your 5 senses can be very helpful for self soothing Use grounding techniques that rivet you to the present moment. Pour your focus into eating a meal, playing with a pet, or listening to music. Experiment with different things that make you feel better.
- Allow your emotions to surface and accept that they are a normal response to trauma. Find mindful ways to take a step back from the intensity, be curious about what your emotions are trying to tell you, and allow the uncomfortableness for small periods of time.
Self Care- A healthy body can increase your ability to cope with the stress of trauma.
- Maintain a healthy daily routine and add some structured activities.
- A lack of healthy sleep can amplify your trauma symptoms and make it harder to maintain emotional balance. Making decisions, being productive, and problem solving are all impacted when we are exhausted. Consider new sleep routines and work towards 7-9 hours of sleep a night.
- Eating proportionate, healthy foods throughout the day improves energy, cognitive function and problem solving abilities. Avoid processed foods and excessive sugars.
- Alcohol, drugs, and other dissociating behaviours (ie. gambling, overeating, overshopping can worsen your symptoms and increase feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.
- Do not rush into major life decisions such as changing careers, moving, or significant commitments
- Reduce your stress by adjusting your expectations of self. Connect with things that calm you. Breathing techniques, yoga, hobbies and activities that used to bring you joy.
Recovering from trauma takes time, and there is no definitive timeline for healing. But if months have passed, your intensity of your symptoms are not fading, and your feeling stuck; you may need help from a trauma therapist. Trauma counselling involves finding a therapist you can trust and feel safe with. Treatment must be customized to each clients’ individual needs and may utilize a variety of treatment modalities.
Groundwork Counselling provides PTSD treatment and trauma counselling through talk therapy. A strength based, solution focused treatment plan forms the foundation of this process. Cognitive behavioural techniques that raise awareness of your thoughts and beliefs about trauma are utilized in conjunction with the development of effective coping skills. Body oriented skills such as Mindfulness and Distress tolerance may also be suggested as powerful tools that facilitate a mind-body connection.
Sometimes talk therapy is not enough to process and integrate trauma. Alternative forms of therapy can be considered:
Neurofeedback- This brain biofeedback shows promise in helping patients with trauma symptoms learn to change their brain wave activity to help them become calmer and better able to engage with others.
Somatic experiencing focuses on bodily sensations, rather than thoughts and memories about the traumatic event. By concentrating on what’s happening in your body, you can release pent-up trauma-related energy through shaking, crying, and other forms of physical release.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with eye movements or other forms of rhythmic, left-right stimulation that can “unfreeze” traumatic memories.
Helping a loved one deal with trauma
It can be incredibly difficult to watch loved ones struggle with trauma. Your support can play a crucial role in their recovery.
- Healing from trauma takes time. Be patient with the pace of recovery and remember that everyone’s response to trauma is different. Try not to judge how they are coping, manage your own reactions, and avoid going into a fear based controlling mode.
- Your loved one may experience volatile and intense emotions. Feelings such as anger, guilt, fear, and disconnect may occur. become angry, irritable, withdrawn, or emotionally distant. This is a result of the trauma, not you. Try not to take their emotional roller coaster personally.
- Sometimes it can be very difficult for people to talk about their trauma. Don’t rush the process but be willing if/when they are ready.
- Encourage your loved one to connect socially, seek trauma supports (if necessary), develop interests that generate pleasure, maintain routine, and practice healthy self care.
- Focus on your own self care and emotional health. If you are feeling overwhelmed connect to family and friends. Even if your loved one is not ready to reach out, you may find a trauma therapist helpful in your process.
I am finally on the right track and can stay that way. Our journey has meant the world to me and I really don’t know how I could have gotten to this healthy place without your kindness and support. Thank you for everything, Jennifer.