Trauma – an understanding

According to the mental health charity MIND, trauma is when ‘we experience stressful, frightening or distressing events.’ As has become evident during the covid crisis, trauma has become a contemporary issue. From the direct impact of covid itself to its indirect effects such as redundancy, homelessness, and domestic violence, there is a pressing need for individuals, families, employees, and employers to be aware of trauma, its effects, and how to respond to it.

A unique experience

Anyone who has experienced trauma will tell you it is a unique experience. Sufferers can be, to varying degrees, conscious or unconscious of both the traumatic events they go through and the trauma they cause. Awareness of symptoms and effects does not always result in people joining the dots. There are no helpful emails sent to our inboxes, no text messages to our phones. People often ‘discover’ they are traumatised as they try to make sense of why things are as they are.

People present differently with trauma, too. They can be overly dependent or withdrawn, chaotic or controlled, hyperaroused or shutdown. And overcoming trauma is a similarly individual experience. Psychological approaches that resolve trauma for one person might worsen it for another.

Factors that can increase susceptibility to trauma include previous traumatic history, poor mental health and wellbeing, the severity of the traumatic event(s), and the degree of challenge and disruption the trauma represents to someone’s identity, beliefs, and life circumstances.

Psychological and physical

While trauma is a psychological condition, it is more helpful to understand it as having psychological and physical characteristics. This is most obvious when the trauma is physical in nature, such as covid or assault. However, even when the trauma is purely psychological, such as trauma associated with redundancy, there are still physical aspects. Pain, intestinal conditions, and migraines are all common symptoms, for example.

Big T and small t

Trauma exists on a spectrum. Big T traumas are life-threatening or seriously disabling. Small t traumas, while severe, do not pose a threat to life or are less incapacitating. I use these terms to help people capture their subjective experience of trauma. A Big T trauma to one person can be a small t to someone else. These are my terms, of course. If you were to speak to a psychiatrist, they might use terms such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. People with Big T or complex trauma can be permanently traumatised, while small t or less complex trauma can come and go.

Single and repeated, personal and impersonal

Trauma can result from single or repeated events. A road traffic accident is an example of a one-off trauma; being in an abusive relationship an example of repeated trauma. These examples also reflect the personal and impersonal nature of trauma, which can occur because of who someone is or be entirely unconnected to them. However, all traumas will feel personal.

The language of trauma

As a practitioner, I hear the following words from clients: frightened, under threat, humiliated, rejected, abandoned, invalidated, unsafe, unsupported, trapped, ashamed, powerless. But it isn’t just through words that people describe their trauma. Non-verbal language can be equally telling and informative, such as posture, hypervigilance, lack of eye contact, and erratic physical movement.

Psychoeducation

Perhaps more than any other psychological issue, there is an understandable need to demystify trauma. This is called psychoeducation. Trauma can be annoyingly mysterious to both sufferers and the people around them. I see many people who come into coaching and therapy mistaking a symptom or effect for the cause. They know something is wrong and look around for the best explanation. Simply knowing what is happening can make a huge difference.

Even if someone knows they are traumatised, they can still develop their awareness through psychoeducation. As a practitioner, I am in a great position to share information. Fight, flight, freeze responses, sensory information processing, memory distortion, and safe psychological approaches to detraumatising – information like this can significantly enhance someone’s knowledge of their trauma and consequently ameliorate it.

Symptoms and effects

Psychoeducation can also help people understand the symptoms and effects of their trauma. These include:

  • Changes in identity – low self-esteem, guilt, blame
  • Psychological effects such as flashbacks, disassociation and mental health difficulties
  • Physical effects such as hyperarousal, pain and poor sleep
  • Problem lifestyles such as addiction, obsession and compulsion
  • Relationship issues such as withdrawal or dependence
  • Professional impacts such as poor concentration and focus and loss of meaning and purpose

A perpetual present

One of the most valuable pieces of information I share helps to clear up one of the biggest ‘mysteries’ for clients. Why do they continue to experience trauma sometimes many years after it occurred? This is the answer I give.

When someone experiences trauma, their mind/body systems take a ‘snapshot’ of it. They do this on the assumption that if it happened once, it could happen again, and their job is to recognise trauma and trigger our protective responses to it. The trouble is our mind/body systems are not overly concerned with accuracy. In scanning our internal and external worlds for signs of threat that match those in the original snapshot, they will err on the side of caution. When it comes to danger, anything with a passing resemblance to the original will trigger a warning. When this happens, our mind/body systems are seeking feedback from us. They want to know if the threat is real or not.

Unless and until we present our mind/body systems with concrete evidence, we are no longer at risk, they will keep hold of the past snapshot and continually integrate it into our present. Hence my phrase ‘a perpetual present.’ It doesn’t matter whether the initial trauma was five, ten, or twenty years ago. Our mind/body systems can be stubbornly protective.

Befriending our nervous systems

Whatever trauma support and treatment someone is given, be it practical or psychological or both, it must achieve the following: switching off the part of the nervous system activated by trauma, otherwise known as the fight, flight or freeze response, and switching on the part of the nervous system that deactivates trauma, called the body’s Relaxation Response.

When someone can talk about, imagine and engage with their trauma with their Relaxation Response switched on, their mind/body systems conclude that the risk of further trauma has passed. If we could hear our mind/body systems talk at this point, I think it would go something like this.

“My owner is taking about their trauma while feeling calm, confident and hopeful. They are no longer afraid, and it does not make sense for me to keep hold of their trauma in its current location, keeping it ever-present. I can now send the trauma to a storage warehouse where my owner can reflect on events without experiencing any difficult emotions.”

Overcoming trauma

I am not for one moment suggesting that overcoming trauma is easy, but what I am suggesting is that trauma can be either fully resolved or overcome to a significant degree when someone can live safely and flourish. What support and treatment can achieve this?

  • A lifestyle that can meet essential emotional and physical needs, such as:
    • Secure employment
    • A safe environment
    • Healthy supportive relationships
    • A life of meaning and purpose
  • Effective psychological treatments that respect the time it can take for someone to overcome their trauma.

As a practitioner, I am happier talking to clients about Post Traumatic Growth, a term that acknowledges their trauma and its impact but which sows the seeds of hope. Post Traumatic Growth sees beyond trauma to someone’s strengths, resources and a life of potential.

Getting support

If you have found my post helpful and would like to further explore any aspects of trauma, please contact me for your free IMPACT consultation.

I will give you as much time as you need to feel confident I am the right person for you. You will have the opportunity to tell me about what you are going through and find out how I can support you. Even if you choose not to work with me, I promise your consultation will give you more ideas, knowledge, and insight than you had before.