What is Trauma
With the ever-increasing awareness of mental health issues, the word “trauma” now comes up in everyday conversations. This is definitely a good sign of societal progress. However, loose discussions about trauma can cause some to misinterpret their experiences. Chalking up all problems to trauma can overwhelm individuals and leave them feeling hopeless and stuck. And then, there’s the opposite. Those who minimize and even deny traumatic experiences can internalize their emotions with equally harmful consequences.
Trauma is how the human body responds to a highly stressful event. We are hard-wired to immediately jump into “fight, flight, freeze” mode when this happens. More recently, clinicians acknowledge a fourth associated response to interpersonal trauma, referred to as the “fawn/appease” response. The fight response occurs when we perceive that the best option for dealing with a threat is to retaliate. The flight response occurs when it seems prudent to flee. The freeze response is just that. When a person becomes shell-shocked, they simply cannot mobilize a viable response. And finally, the fawn/appease response occurs when an individual pacifies an attacker by “agreeably” going along with them.
Stress Vs. Trauma
These fight, flight, freeze and fawn responses formed in the human brain during pre-historic evolution for a simple reason – survival. They all put stress on the nervous system. Consequently, stress is an intense but normal response to situational challenges that life presents, as long as it is short-lived. It becomes problematic when it endures for long periods. The accompanying psychological reactions to chronic stress are difficult to tolerate because they lead individuals to overly activate their flight, fight, freeze, fawn responses. This disrupts the nervous system completely, causing dysregulation. The main distinction between stress and trauma is that stress is not always traumatic but, trauma is always stressful and harmful.
Individuals process trauma in different ways. What devastates one may hardly stress out another. The measure of a person’s resiliency is borne from their upbringing and life experiences, along with their psychological, biological, and socio-cultural make-up. Childhood attachment figures and role models can significantly impact the set point of a person’s nervous system. Anyone raised in a home with a hostile environment, for example, will likely have a more reactive nervous system, compared to that of a person coming from a harmonious household.
Types of Trauma
Many people return to their normal disposition after a short period following a traumatic event. Others, however, cannot turn off the switch. Long-term, this leads to mood swings, negative intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance to danger, irritability and angry outbursts. When the trauma symptoms persist for a month or more and significantly impact your ability to function in daily life, consulting a physician is important. You may have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Typically associated with big “T” trauma, PTSD can occur after being in a war zone, natural disaster or serious car accident. Victims of gun violence, rape or assault can also develop these symptoms. This distressing disorder can cause some to relive the trauma, over and over again, through flashbacks. Seeking early intervention can help you avoid many of the serious symptoms associated with PTSD to greatly improve the quality of your life.
However, trauma responses do not always involve life-threatening and dangerous events. A job loss, infidelity and relationship breakdowns, along with legal and financial problems are all examples of situations that can result in small “t” trauma. The prolonged cumulative stress they cause can have a compounding effect and leave individuals feeling exhausted and emotionally drained. Clinical practitioners are now paying close attention to signs of small “t” trauma which were often disregarded and even overlooked in the past. Some of these include:
Lack of Emotional Control
Everyone has bad days that cause us to snap at our loved ones for little reason. But when emotional reactivity is triggered by trauma, the outbursts are more intense and frequent. Your unresolved traumatic emotions remain bubbling under the surface. Consequently, your threshold for holding it together falls much lower than normal. This can lead you to unleash pent-up emotions towards others. When loved ones start walking on eggshells for fear of triggering you, cracks will start appearing in meaningful relationships. If you find yourself surprised at your overreactions, then explore this further with your physician as a sign of unresolved trauma.
Harbouring Shame and Guilt
Traumatic events leave many feeling out of control. One way to bring back control is to rationalize how you could have acted differently. This opens up the possibility of a “safe future” should anything like that reoccur. However, dissecting your behaviour like this will only bring temporary relief. Doing this also puts you at risk of becoming overly critical of yourself for having failed to prevent what, in reality, might not have been preventable at all. Those who get stuck down the shame and guilt rabbit hole can benefit from deep immersion in self-compassion and forgiveness with a trained therapist.
An overloaded nervous system can cause some individuals to “zone out” or dissociate. This coping mechanism keeps stress at arm’s length until the nervous system calms down. In mild cases, it leads to brain fog, an inability to focus and a mind that wanders off into daydreams on autopilot. Such individuals will go through the motions of everyday life without fully experiencing their thoughts and feelings. However, in severe cases, the detachment leads to a dysfunction of the central nervous system. Dissociation can result in temporary gaps in memory, an inability to control bodily movements and even a sense of disconnection from who you are.
Trauma is painful. Expressing those emotions openly and outwardly can exhaust some people. Therefore, they may seek relief by withdrawing from companionship and numbing their feelings. Some turn to alcohol and narcotics to help them along this path. Shutting out meaningful relationships and social support causes deeper psychological harm. You now have multiple layers accumulating over the unresolved trauma, all of which can wreak havoc on your relationships.
The five points listed above hardly constitute the entire list of outcomes that result from trauma. Rather, they are examples that demonstrate the long reach of untreated traumatic experiences. Emotional wounds are no different from physical ones. When ignored, serious wounds fester into infections that require consequential interventions.
Some individuals try to numb out their feelings and receive temporary relief from their emotional suffering. But this restricts them from accessing the full spectrum of their feelings. Unfortunately, trauma symptoms typically do not resolve on their own without treatment. Self-awareness is an important part of this healing process. And the first step is to engage a professional to help you properly peel back the layers and distinguish your stress responses from small “t” trauma.
The good news is that help is readily available. Scientifically tried, tested and true methods of therapy can allow anyone to train their nervous systems to develop calmer baselines. This can significantly increase personal resiliency. The most compelling include Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Therapists trained in these modalities can help resolve underlying trauma to improve your overall well-being.
About the Author
is a managing director at Beaches Therapy Group, serving clients for over 10 years. We have helped hundreds of individuals resolve trauma to bring happiness back in their lives. Let’s have a discussion about how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.
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Research for this article was contributed by Yasaman Haghighat, Counselling Psychology Intern