What is Trauma?
With the ever-increasing awareness of mental health issues, the word “trauma” often comes up in everyday conversations. This is definitely a good sign of societal progress. However, casual discussions about trauma can cause some to misinterpret their experiences. Attributing all problems to trauma can overwhelm individuals and leave them feeling hopeless and stuck. On the other hand, sometimes 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 or a series of stressful events. We are hard-wired to “fight, flight, freeze” in response to a threat, otherwise known as the sympathetic nervous system activation. 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. All of these mechanisms are largely unconscious and animals show very similar responses in the wild.
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 or when the event is so overwhelming that it overrides our ability to recover and move on with a sense of safety or ease. 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. 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 symptoms of post-trauma (small or large T) include:
1) 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.
2) 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.
3) Zoning Out
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.
4) Relationship Problems
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.
Resolving Trauma with Trained Therapists
The 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. Numbing feelings to receive temporary relief from emotional suffering restricts individuals from accessing the full spectrum of their feelings. Also, emotional wounds are no different from physical ones. When ignored, serious wounds fester into infections that require consequential interventions. Likewise, trauma symptoms typically do not resolve on their own without treatment.
The good news is that help is readily available for trauma recovery. 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) as well as other approaches. Trauma-Informed Therapists are trained in these modalities to help you resolve underlying trauma to improve your overall well-being. Self-awareness is an important part of the healing process and your therapist can properly peel back the emotional layers to distinguish your stress responses from small “t” or big “T” traumas.
Fees for Trauma Recovery
Therapy fees are one reason why some people avoid seeking help, and we understand this, completely. Here’s how we charge for our time. We are happy to have a frank and open discussion with you about this to ensure we manage your care in the best way possible. Our services are covered by most extended benefit insurance plans. If you do not have coverage, we also offer affordable therapy sessions at discounted rates through our internship program. Therapy is an investment in your health and happiness and it is more affordable than common belief.
Also, our blogs, authored by professionally trained therapists, are available for free on our website. We publish them regularly and feature topics that are useful for individuals, couples and families. We encourage you to visit our site often. In many cases, this information will help you understand what you are experiencing. However, our blogs do not constitute professional advice, diagnosis, treatment or therapy. You must always consult with a physician, psychologist or qualified mental health provider to professionally direct your physical, mental and emotional health.
Often a few targeted therapy sessions may be all you require. We never keep you in therapy for longer than you need. To accommodate varying schedules we offer online and in-person therapy sessions during office hours, evenings and weekends.