Trauma? What is that?

Trauma, what exactly is that?  As a counselor I hear the word trauma used a lot. Sometimes the word is used accurately, but sometimes it is used to describe a strong emotion or a stressful situation. Which doesn't necessarily mean trauma happens.  Luckily, trauma is becoming more recognized and accepted in our culture. We are starting to see beyond war, rape, neglect, and abuse as the only causes of trauma. This is important, especially for those who have experienced trauma in other ways like in a hospital, from persistent bullying, or from watching an event like 9/11 on TV. 

Personally, I experienced a lot of trauma, especially in my childhood.  It took me many years to understand myself>  I was so different from my peers. I had a lot of shame around why I acted the ways I did and felt the ways I did.  When I learned about trauma in Graduate school it was the beginning of my healing journey. Since then, I have worked with many healers, both traditional and non traditional, all of them helping me work the trauma out of my body which slowly taught me to understand who I was and who I was not. This has given me a personal and professional understanding of trauma, which helps me to see it in other people.

In order to help people I wanted to write a short blog about trauma, what it is, and how it affects us.  In short, trauma disrupts our ability to connect to both self and others. Trauma happens when a distressing or life-threatening event that overwhelms our "normal" coping mechanisms.  This can be an actual threat to our physical self, our survival, or our ego survival/death ( i.e., threatens the loss of integrity of social self, shame).

People who have experienced a traumatic event may experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  This can lead to extreme anxiety or ongoing problems with relationships and self-esteem.  What we know about trauma is that it can affect any person at any age. It seems that women are more likely to develop the disorder than men and it seems to be passed down from generation to generation.  

For some people, symptoms of PTSD develop immediately after exposure to an overwhelming event. For these people symptoms can persist for up to a month. When this happens the condition is called acute stress disorder. PTSD is diagnosed when the stress symptoms following exposure have persisted for over a month and lasting longer than 3-6 months.

What is not completely understood about PTSD is that there can be a delayed expression of PTSD. For many people this occurs when symptoms arise six months or more following the onset of trauma. This often happens to people who have suffered childhood abuse.  These people are likely to develop the disorder, sometimes months or years after the trauma. In my professional career I have noticed that these are the people who fall through the cracks. They have a hard time understanding what is happening in their body because it seems to come out of nowhere. Often times they do not see the link between the event that happened years ago and the symptoms they are all of a sudden experiencing. 

Below is a list of symptoms that may present after a traumatic event. Please note that trauma lives in each body differently. Therefore, each person may have a different set of symptoms. While reading this list be open to seeing where you or a loved one may lie. You may not have bad memories or dreams, but when sharing the original event your body may become anxious and overwhelmed with a rush of energy that leaves you red in the face, or stuttering, or lightly tremoring deep within the body, or all of a sudden you can't remember the details. Maybe big chunks of the event are missing that you simply can't remember. Maybe, every time you walk into a hospital you all of a sudden feel sick to your stomach. Maybe, anytime your hear a woman share her birth story you become distracted, angry, inpatient, or feel the impulse to interrupt and share your story. There are many, many, many different ways trauma can show up in the body. Hopefully this list written by Psychology Today will help you gain a fuller understanding of what PTSD looks like.

Symptoms associated with reliving the traumatic event:

  • Having bad dreams, or distressing memories about the event
  • Behaving or feeling as if the event were actually happening all over again (known as flashbacks)
  • Dissociative reactions or loss of awareness of present surroundings
  • Having a lot of emotional feelings when reminded of the event
  • Having a lot of physical sensations when reminded of the event (heart pounds or misses a beat, sweating, difficulty breathing, feeling faint, feeling a loss of control)

Symptoms related to avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event:

  • Avoiding thoughts, conversations, or feelings about the event
  • Avoiding people, activities, or places associated with the event

Symptoms related to negative changes in thought or mood:

  • Having difficulty remembering an important part of the original trauma
  • Feeling numb or detached from things
  • Lack of interest in social activities
  • Inability to experience positive moods
  • Pessimism about the future

Arousal and reactivity symptoms:

  • Sleeping Difficulties including trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability and outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling easily startled
  • Excess Awareness (hypervigilance)

Other symptoms related to depersonalization (feeling like an observer to one's body and thoughts/feelings) or derealization (experiencing unreality of surroundings) may also exist for some individuals.

What is important to know is that PTSD is not a life sentence. I know from experience that you can overcome the symptoms of trauma. In fact, many people overcome trauma and go on to inspire others to do the same. Although I am not going to go into how to heal trauma I will mention a few avenues to explore to help you start the healing process. You can explore eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), tension/trauma release exercises (TRE), massage, yoga, meditation, medication (like Zoloft, Paxil or antidepressants), psychotherapy, like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), mindfulness based practices, exposure therapy, hypnotherapy, group therapy, or shamanic journeying. This is a very short list, please know there are many more healing modalities aimed at helping an individual heal.