Definition of Trauma
Trauma generally refers to a person’s psychological/emotional response to an event (or series of events) that threatens their physical or emotional safety, which can lead to many long-term mental and physical struggles such as an accident, rape, natural disaster, etc., and the not-so-obvious kind: an emotionally tumultuous childhood. The English word trauma derives from the Greek word traumatikos, meaning wound. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are expected in traumatic circumstances, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.
It is important to note that this definition includes not only people who directly experienced such events, but also those who may have directly witnessed such an event (vicarious/secondary trauma). However, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will experience longstanding effects. Also, not every stressful experience is considered traumatic.
What happens during a Traumatic Event?
Let’s look at what happens to an individual during a traumatic event. When the traumatic event is happening, the body is under immense stress, and goes into “survival mode.” The survival mode triggers the sympathetic nervous system, to prepare the body for the stressful or dangerous situation. When this system of the Central Nervous System is activated, the individual operates on an evolutionary instinct to either stay and fight, flee to save themselves, or freeze. At this point there isn’t much of rational thinking; you are acting to increase your chances of survival. This is what makes it difficult to process trauma while it’s happening. Later, whether it’s been weeks or months, you can begin to reflect on and process what happened to you—but unless certain factors are in place, you may not be able to fully process, and thus, recover from it. Trauma can shatter core beliefs such as the world is safe, and that humanity is innately good. The experience of traumatic events may predispose survivors to bouts of depression and isolation, physical and psychological issues, including difficulty regulating emotions like sadness and anger, eating disorders, substance use issues, and chronic health conditions such as gastrointestinal, neurological, or musculoskeletal illness.
Being in a safe and secure environment with plenty of validation and support can help promote trauma recovery—but not everyone has access to that at all times. Even well-adjusted adults aren’t always in an ideal situation to process and heal from trauma.
Factors that can impede recovery
- People whose trauma is caused or exacerbated by systemic oppression, for example, a toxic work environment, a toxic friendship or romantic relationship, a child growing up in an abusive or dysfunctional household.
- Inter-generational trauma: the effects of a historical traumatic event (holocausts, genocides, colonial oppression, slavery, etc.) can be transmitted down generations. For example, a great grandfather who was placed in a concentration camp during colonial times may have learned to cope by “cutting off” his emotions; he remains emotionally distant from his son, who then raises his family the same way and so on down the generations.
- Having a personal or family history of mental illness can also impede recovery. Mental illness breaks down our in-built mechanisms that normally help us bounce back from adversity.
A word on developmental Trauma
A child in an abusive or dysfunctional household often dissociates or mentally disconnects from his/her body and the situation they’re in to make it through these tumultuous early years. When one is a child, he/she doesn’t get the choice to process what they’re going through but must learn how to survive through various coping mechanisms that facilitate adapting to the hostile environment. Examples of these mechanisms are hypervigilance, compliance, how to stay invisible, defensiveness, lying, etc.
This adaptation (survival mode) does not cease when one is no longer a child; it becomes embedded into one’s personality. Unfortunately, one cannot thrive on survival mode because he/she remains constantly on the look-out for trouble, even reading too much into mundane exchanges. There is a constant threat of danger. It is difficult to healthily interact with others when survival mode is on.
How to tell if you have unprocessed Trauma
In everyday life, signs that it’s time to reach out for help include:
- Isolating yourself
- Being physically present but feeling emotionally vacant
- Engaging in compulsive behaviors excessive drinking, mindless sexual escapades, gambling
- Avoiding particular people or places
These behaviors are indicators of how one is reorganizing their life around the triggers to the trauma.
To determine if this may be the case, it can be helpful to ask yourself: How is this limiting me, and is it limiting me so much that I’m not living my life in a way that aligns with my goals and values?
Processing Trauma: Integration
You may have recently realized that you’re ready to confront your past and the ways in which it may be negatively impacting your current life. But what does “processing” trauma even mean? And what’s the best way to do it?
To try and answer this question it is important to know that you have more options than ever before, and that it’s never too late to get started. Here’s what you need to know:
Different trauma-healing approaches and strategies have a common theme. They explore revisiting the traumatic experiences in some way. Some people can talk about it, others will write, others need to reconnect with their bodily sensations to release trapped sensory memory.
It is deemed necessary to get in touch with trauma-related emotions, thoughts, and conclusions you’ve drawn about yourself and the world. It’s allowing yourself the space to integrate a traumatic experience into your life story, grieve any losses, and move forward in a meaningful way.
Processing trauma means getting in touch with parts of yourself that you may have rejected, not acknowledged etc. However, this should happen at a comfortable pace for you. It is important that you work with someone who allows you to take your time to delve into traumatic memories or rehash all the terrible things that happened to you. You should only do this from a safe, grounded mental and emotional space.
A trauma-informed therapist will help you to:
- Understand how your history maps onto your present
- Identify signs of unprocessed trauma
- Set a comfortable pace for your successful treatment.
It’s important to note here that there’s no set timeline for processing trauma, but you’ll know you’re in a good place when your life no longer revolves reorganizing your life around the trauma.
Although you might fear that opening the door to your past could mean a lifetime of therapy, processing trauma doesn’t have to take forever. Some therapies have been reported as being effective in as little as five to twelve sessions.
Working through trauma doesn’t mean you will no longer have triggers or experiences other challenges such as anxiety or depression. Lingering mental health symptoms are common even after therapy, especially where there was prolonged exposure such as developmental trauma or systemic oppression.
The goal of Trauma Processing is two-fold:
- To integrate the traumatic experience with the rest of your life story
- To develop the skills to deal with the ways trauma still manifests in your life so that the waves of panic, fear, or despair may begin to reduce.
You’ll know that you’ve made significant progress when your life is no longer organized so tightly around what happened to you. You’re still going to have bad days and will remember how difficult those times were, but you will be empowered to not let the tough moments and memories impair you.