Trauma & PTSD
Trauma comes in many shapes and sizes
We often think of trauma as something bad that happens to a person. But it is more about how much experiences overwhelm your ability to cope.
From everyday incidents to devastating experiences, let’s look at some of the ways trauma can have an impact and how therapy can help.
Some traumas come from acute events that are hurtful, distressing, or shocking such as a car accident, natural disasters, or assault.
Other traumas are the result of chronic or ongoing painful situations such as bullying or coercion, growing up with parental alcoholism, or ongoing relationship violence.
Trauma is in many ways universal, and there are many day-to-day experiences that result in some degree of trauma response. Examples of these might be when a bicycle swerves too near, someone shouts at you, or teasing from peers.
Trauma can be a loud intruder or a quiet shadow
When you have unresolved trauma in your life, no matter how severe or slight, it is a constant companion.
The impact of trauma ranges from harsh and unrelenting to subtle yet persistent.
Trauma can result in symptoms such as those associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including:
- intrusive memories
- anxiety and panic
- avoidance of situations that remind you of traumatic events
- lack of enjoyment
- guilt and shame
- being constantly on the lookout for danger
Some types of trauma, especially experiences that happen over a prolonged period of time or in childhood, create more complex and extensive damage.
Even though trauma symptoms can be very severe or debilitating, they can also be very subtle and impact your life in ways you might not even realize.
Trauma influences the beliefs that you carry around with you about yourself and the world, even when you don’t consciously realize it. For example, if you have the belief that the world isn’t safe or that you are not worthy of getting support, this will make relationships difficult or make it very difficult to take care of yourself.
Trauma happens in the body
It is important to understand that trauma, no matter the size or shape, at its core is about your biological survival and defense system.
When you perceive threat, whether it takes the form of a car veering into your lane, someone teasing you repeatedly, or a menacing dog bark, your instinct kicks in along with a flood of physiological responses to prepare you for fight or flight – you are no longer thinking with your “human brain” but are driven by your instinctive “animal brain.”
Ideally when something bad happens, after it’s over your defenses turn off, then you go into recuperation mode and return to normal. But this doesn’t happen with trauma.
If the survival part of your brain doesn’t really know or feel that there is no more threat, it drives your body to keep trying to defend you even if you don’t realize it consciously. Your survival system gets “stuck on.” And you end up with unresolved trauma.
This is why many trauma symptoms are so physical and so automatic. Over time, they turn from ‘fight or flight’ types of responses to feeling:
- Shut down
Trauma happens in relationship
Some traumatic events are impersonal – accidents, storms, a stray baseball.
But many traumas involve other people—people who are being hurtful or neglectful, or not giving you the help you need.
When you are hurt or not helped by other people, this can shake you deeply, shape the way you experience yourself, and color the way you look at relationships.
Even when trauma is relatively simple and impersonal, if you are stuck in defense mode, it can be hard to make good use of connection and support.
If you are a trauma survivor, you may have difficulty trusting yourself and others, reaching out for support, having an accurate sense of who is and is not safe. It is easy to end up feeling a great deal of confusion and loneliness.
Trauma, anxiety, and other struggles
Trauma and anxiety go hand in hand. Many of the symptoms of trauma are rooted in an anxiety response.
Other anxiety disorders can develop after trauma, such as obsessive/compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, social anxiety, and others.
Frequently trauma survivors have other mental, emotional and relational problems that either pre-dated trauma or develop because of trauma. Depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders are very common.
Physical and medical complications can also arise, particularly stress-related conditions such as gastrointestinal issues, headaches, and chronic pain.
Working to resolve trauma often involves addressing this much larger puzzle.
Trauma survivors can be very high-functioning
Trauma survivors can function very well and lead productive lives. You may go about your everyday life in a way that seems quite normal to others and have an incredible ability to compartmentalize, masking your difficulties with a well-developed set of resources that help you get by.
Some of your resources might be very sustainable and feed your well-being. Others may get you through but at a cost: avoiding intimacy, ignoring emotions, or taking things out on yourself to avoid conflict.
These misplaced strategies are often what bring trauma survivors into therapy.
Getting help: Transforming the past and moving forward
Many trauma survivors have the sense that their problems don’t count because “so many other people have experienced something so much worse.”
But when your ability to protect yourself or take care of yourself is compromised, it’s worth getting help to heal and move beyond the trauma.
Effective trauma work begins with establishing a baseline of safety and helping you build up your coping resources. This helps you move through your everyday life feeling better, and it also helps you re-work your responses to trauma without feeling overwhelmed.
When you work on healing, you begin to both know and feel that your trauma is truly in the past and over; you heal from the effects of it so that it is no longer overwhelming; and you can dive into your life today without the weight of the past holding you back.
If you would like help resolving trauma in your life, we’d love to talk about the possibility of working with you. Please get in touch to schedule a complimentary phone consultation.